Story — From the December 2017 issue

The Year of The Frog

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To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horses?” he said. “Why didn’t you say you had horses? They’re magnificent!”

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas

My brother and I laughed behind our hands. Gert wasn’t really a horse but a twenty-three-year-old Shetland pony. Once she’d been the unicorn at a petting zoo, giving slow rides to a thousand children, but now her hooves were so overgrown she could barely walk and her tail was a dreadlock of cockleburs. She was squat and scruffy, like something out of the Pleistocene, with the temperament to match. She nickered scornfully at Sweet Macho, who was bucking and twisting, charging up and down the fence. With every heave of his body came an explosion of gas from between his muscular hindquarters.

The Frog was undeterred. “Boy, I’d love to ride him.”

Neither horse had been saddled in years. Our mother was an excellent horsewoman and had worked as a handler at the track before it closed, but she no longer had time to ride, and the horses lived like mustangs on the thousand acres behind our house. It was rare to find them as we had that day, stretching their heads over the fence, trying to nibble the overgrown yard.

“Forget it,” our mother said flatly. “Sweet Macho would throw you over the moon.”

“Come on,” the Frog said. “Give me a little credit! I had lessons as a kid. He just needs somebody on his back for a minute and he’ll settle in. Wow, is he a big horse.”

Sweet Macho had turned from the fence and begun to gallop across the field. From a distance he didn’t look half bad — his powerful legs stretching and contracting, his black tail flowing behind. But at one point he kicked so high it seemed he’d topple over, and we children cringed. It was not unthinkable that he’d fall and break his spine; he was plenty crazy enough. Some days he waited for the school bus like some kind of predator, only to burst from the trees and chase us the long mile home. “He’s just trying to play,” our mother told us when we tumbled through the door, breathless with terror. “If you don’t want to play, don’t run!” We knew better than to argue with her. But we also knew better than to stand in the path of a thousand-pound quadruped. We ran.

Now Sweet Macho came at us with such speed it seemed he’d flatten the fence. He stopped just short, rearing, flaring his wet nostrils, releasing a high, desperate whinny.

“He’s in rare form,” our mother said. “I think he likes you.”

The Frog smiled. “Then I’m flattered. He must’ve been a stunner on the track.”

No, our mother confessed. Sweet Macho had been lazy and distractible, as likely to run sideways as forward, the kind of racehorse they shipped to Asia to be enjoyed in the form of sushi. Because she’d saved him from this fate, Sweet Macho was partial to her; she didn’t know how he’d react to being mounted by somebody else. She’d strictly forbidden us kids from riding him.

As if,” my brother said.

The Frog laughed, deep and undaunted. He put an arm around our mother’s shoulders. Old Gert was crippling away, back to her patch of cockleburs, and for a moment we stood there, watching her go, a family.

He said, “Let me change into my boots.”

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.

Sweet Macho was too big to mount from the ground, so we lured him up next to the truck. All it took was a bowl of sugar, which he snuffled so greedily that he failed to notice our mother sliding the bit between his teeth. Not until she cinched the saddle did he snort in outrage, looking at each of us with his liquid black eyes as though to memorize the faces of his traitors.

Beer in hand, the Frog climbed onto the truck and swung himself into the saddle. He was a tall man on a tall horse, and our mother couldn’t keep from laughing. He laughed, too, waggling his dark eyebrows. He finished his beer and threw the can off in the weeds while she adjusted the stirrups to fit his long legs. His boots were ostrich skin, bright orange with a sharply upturned toe. Drug dealer boots, our mother called them. The Frog called them a midlife crisis. No sooner had he taken the reins than he gave a brisk kick.

“Careful not to —” She didn’t get to finish. They were gone, Sweet Macho tearing across the field with the Frog hunkered on his back, trailing a ragged scream.

“Shit,” our mother said. We ran around the back of the house. “Shit shit shit.”

They picked up speed. Sweet Macho made a wide turn at the end of the pasture, his hooves pounding with fury, his long neck stretching to match his stride. We children cheered. “Go Frog!” we cried, running hard, trying to keep him in our sights. “Hang on!”

There came a crash of breaking branches as Sweet Macho tore through a stand of oak brush and emerged, still mounted, on the other side. He cleared a ditch and ran past the old corral, neck pumping with more effort than he’d ever shown on the track, as if he’d been waiting all these years for a jockey whose size did not insult. At the fence, he turned and ran for the mossed-over pond, his breath coming in grunts and gusts. How the Frog stayed on I’ll never know. He’d ceased to scream and only clung there, his face pinched shut against the terror or the wind or both.

Within twenty yards of the water, Sweet Macho slowed and seemed to crouch before extending his body in a great high, electric kick. The Frog lost his grip as though he’d never had one. For a moment, he was suspended above the horse, a dark figure against the sky’s blue. Then he fell, mouth agape, arms outspread, and the ground took his breath in a single gasp.

He lay there unmoving. Our mother fell panting beside him.

It was a fifty-minute drive to the hospital, much of it over rough roads. The Frog was bleeding from a gash above his right eye, speaking in a slurred voice, and trying to pinch our mother’s nipples through her shirt. His eyes were wild and sleepy. “Keep him awake,” our mother told us as she maneuvered the truck through long stretches of washboard ruts. We poked his ribs and talked to him, though he made so little sense that we looked at each other wide-eyed. “Oh yeah,” my brother said. “He’s definitely got brain damage.”

“What happened to me, guys?” the Frog kept saying. “What is this place?”

He was childlike in his amazement, looking at the hospital equipment, peering into the nurses’ faces, reaching out to stroke the patterned wallpaper. That a doctor had closed his wound with staples struck him as a great joke. “Did you hear this guy? I thought he was a doctor, not a secretary!” He cut loose with one of his big laughs, then sighed, looking at us standing around his hospital bed. “I’m sorry, but who are you people?”

The room went quiet. Who were we? What did we mean to the Frog?

Seeing our dismay, the doctor rose. He’d been casually half-sitting on the edge of the heater, a clipboard under one arm, trying to explain the great resilience of the human brain. Now he moved into the Frog’s line of vision and spoke with kindly self-assurance.

“This is your family,” he said. “This is your wife, and these are your children.”

The hospital corridors seemed especially bright and sterile that night as we wheeled the Frog — our Frog — out of the building. The parking lot was dark and empty. Stars glinted overhead. The Frog looked at us, two sunburned kids and their tired mother. We had never seen him look so pained.

“What happened to me, guys?”

Every time he finished a bowl of soup, the Frog forgot all about it.

“Man, I’m hungry. Do you have any soup?”

We did, as a matter of fact. A whole cupboard of instant noodles, inherited from our mother’s ladies. They often sent her home with stuff — bottles of musky perfume, T-shirts from Sedona, half-dead houseplants. Some days our mother came home like a weary Santa Claus, a trash bag thrown over one shoulder. Each contained some knickknack or gadget that might briefly hold our interest before joining the dusty graveyard of consumerism that was our house. You could not see the surface of anything. Not one cup matched another. Not one monogrammed spoon.

“Shrimp or chicken?” we asked, though the Frog ate both flavors with equal zeal while trying doggedly to orient himself. What happened to my arm, guys? A horse, you say? What in the world was I doing on a horse? Am I some kind of cowboy? If I’m supposed to be in advertising, what was I doing on a horse? Rounding up some dogies? Ha! God, it hurts to laugh. What the hell happened to my head?

We answered him with patience, demonstrating how high he’d flown and how hard he’d landed. We children were so relieved to have him home with us and not in a hospital bed that we felt a little light-headed, and understood for the first time how scared we’d been — not only of the nurses and needles and blood but of the possibility we’d lost him, even killed him. Only the Frog was spared any recollection of the day’s events. Each time we described them, he listened so intently that we expected the story to stick, then asked, “What happened to my arm, guys?”

“We’re telling you what happened.”

“What happened to who?”

We shuttled him more soup.

“That’s enough,” our mother said. “He’s going to burst at the seams.”

The Frog looked at her as though she’d just materialized.

“Where are we, anyway? What is all this stuff?” He reached out to touch a macramé skunk that sprayed air freshener from its butt. “Don’t tell me we live here.”

“It’s a hotel,” my brother said, picking up the telephone and trilling into the receiver. “Yoo-hoo! Please send a maid to room four-oh-three!”

“Indeed!” I crowed. “And tell her to bring some caviaaaaahhh!”

Our mother slammed her hand down on the table. She had a low tolerance for chaos, and it had been a long time since anything had amused her about maids. When the Frog asked about his arm for the hundredth time she said: “You were flogged by a goddamn goose.”

We children giggled. We were connoisseurs of our mother’s exasperation, which could range from funny to frightening and was easy enough to provoke. Booby traps, high-pitched screams, mice brought in from the fields — before the Frog, enraging our mother had been our most reliable source of entertainment. But now we were all focused on him, on his swollen-shut eye and the bandage on his forehead that was starting to come loose. He was impossible to look away from, our newest and most unexpected acquisition. Our mother sighed and gently smoothed the tape down with her thumb.

That was a beautiful, mild summer. The yard grew tall and green, and poppies flared along the south side of the house. Our mother brought in lilac trimmings for the table and handfuls of wild asparagus. But we children hardly noticed — our lives had become an unending Saturday morning. We stayed in our pajamas and forwent chores. We declined our mother’s offers to ride into town and even lost interest in snooping through her ladies’ houses pretending to dust. We stayed in our dark living room while the summer scrolled past. If it weren’t for the calls of magpies in the trees — their scolding eh? eh? eh? — we might’ve forgotten there was a world out there at all.

Because the Frog loved old movies, we made him a bed on the couch and turned on the black-and-white channel. We’d never watched it ourselves, put off by the actors’ funny accents, but snuggled up next to the Frog we discovered the Marx brothers, Buster Keaton, and Lucille Ball. We learned the finer points of physical comedy — namely, that there were no finer points and you could simply laugh. The Frog delighted in pratfalls. Before his injury he’d taken calculated tumbles of his own, falling over the laundry basket with a yodel of dumb helplessness that made us spew crackers. Now we understood that these had not been mere moments of exuberance but small performances, an art he’d studied, perhaps during his time as a “college theater dork.”

Whether he remembered college now, it was hard to say. He knew the batting averages of half the teams in baseball, but when faced with a piece of cauliflower he turned it over in his hands, amazed and bewildered. He seemed to enjoy exploring the house, asking questions about pictures on the walls, objects he found in drawers. Each represented another clue to his identity, which we were happy to invent. We told him an antique wristwatch had belonged to his buccaneer father. We told him he’d painted the portrait of a cowboy that hung behind the couch. But more satisfying than lies were half-truths, stories of our lives reimagined to include him. Here, we said — this is the chair where you rocked us to sleep. And here is the place where you buried our old dog, Bimbo. There was pleasure in recalling the past, in all its hazy strangeness, and adding the Frog made our nostalgia more potent. It wasn’t long before we’d imagined him so thoroughly into our history that he seemed inextricable. We saw him standing over Bimbo’s grave, his hands wrapped around the handle of our mother’s irrigation shovel. We saw the gray sky behind him and smelled the freshly turned earth. It was his arms, rather than our mother’s, we felt pulling us close.

“He’s not a toy,” our mother warned. “He’s a grown man with a life of his own. He can stay here until he gets his bearings, but then he’s got to go. Listen to me, now — I don’t want you getting too attached.”

And yet we saw the tender way she looked at him when he read to us or joined us in some game. She seemed both pleased and pained by the way my brother trailed him around the house, swinging his arms just so, mimicking the Frog’s languid gait. Like any mother, she wanted to make us happy. And it must’ve been a relief to have someone else around, a person to distract us while she paid the bills or took a bath. What this might have meant for her — twenty consecutive minutes to think, or not think, to sit there without being pelted by toys or complaints or demands, the warm water wrapped around her like a good night’s sleep — I could not yet imagine.

The Frog’s bruises healed, but his mind did not. Within three weeks of his injury, he’d settled comfortably into the living room, appearing to believe he’d always lived there with no greater purpose than to eat chips and doze. Our mother began to worry. Perhaps she ought to contact his wife, or the company where he worked — surely he’d been missed. But the Frog had never been forthcoming about his job, which he’d dismissed as “paper pushing,” and while it might’ve been easier to track down his wife, our mother was reluctant. She hated making phone calls, and I don’t know what would’ve mortified her more — talking to her lover’s wife, or admitting she’d had a lover at all. She put it off, resolving to give the Frog another day, and another. Perhaps she hoped his restless spirit would assert itself again, calling him to go somewhere, even if it wasn’t home. She began to prompt him with questions about his life, using what little she knew of it. Hadn’t he played tennis with a guy named Glenn, or Greg? And wasn’t there something about a bathroom remodel? His wife had been choosing tile, she remembered, and he’d blistered his hands swinging a crowbar. She turned his palms up, looking for proof. Finding none, she showed him the contents of his billfold, unsheathing the cards one by one. City Market. PetPlace. A sandwich card with one punch left, from a shop he must’ve loved.

“Don’t know him,” he said of his driver’s license. “Good-looking guy, though. I like the cut of his jib.”

When our mother pressed too hard, the Frog lost patience. He said he didn’t know anybody named Juliet and had never been to Albuquerque. And if it was true what she kept implying — that he’d lived somewhere else before this, which frankly sounded insane — he’d have to remember it on his own, naturally, without being forced. “And I just don’t see how it’s relevant. I have a life right here, don’t I? What would I want with another one, especially when it’s basically theoretical? I’m sorry, but I just don’t share your fascination.”

Our mother’s face darkened. She was distrustful of big words, or words of any size. To her, they were slippery things with no fixed meaning, used mainly to confuse. She communicated in simpler terms: when pleased, her voice made a three-tone hum like it was skipping down porch steps, and when displeased she radiated a silence so cold it could penetrate bone. As the summer wore on, she treated the Frog to increasing amounts of the latter. His jokes made her sigh. His attempts at affection were rebuffed. She began washing the dishes with violence, scrubbing and dunking as if they were trying to fight their way out of the sink. But the Frog didn’t seem to hear it. While my brother and I fell all over ourselves trying to cook and clean and be quiet — anything to appease her — the Frog just yawned and stretched out on the couch. He wondered aloud whether there was any ice cream. It had never occurred to us that we might ignore our mother, and we watched with a mixture of awe and dread. How long could he hold her off? And what would happen when he couldn’t? Sometimes we caught her watching him, blinking as into a brisk wind, as though she didn’t quite credit his existence.

When we tired of movies, we played cards. Poker, rummy, Uno, speed. We played for nickels and dimes, and when the Frog won these, we moved on to clothespins and pinto beans, whatever we could find in quantity. Soon every scrap of paper in the house was covered in scores, mine reliably the lowest. A stolid child, I wearied of competition. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t just play for fun, why there always had to be some wager. But my brother’s love for the Frog required constant testing. He raced the Frog, boxed the Frog, tried to out-sleep and out-stare and out-pee the Frog. The house was filled with their crashing and grunting. One might think a grown man would’ve let us have the occasional win, but the Frog believed in the character-building properties of failure and so slowly gained possession of everything we had — our Halloween buckets, my brother’s bike, and even our cat, whose name he changed from Sheba to Shit for Brains. I still remember the smell of his feet, which we had to rub as penalty for some rout. “Come on,” he urged when we didn’t use enough pressure. “Get in there!”

As the older sibling, I sought the Frog’s attention with more reserve, making myself available in case he needed a glass of water or help finding the can opener but otherwise going as unnoticed as a limb. My reward came in the form of compliments — on my handwriting, my cartwheels, or how perfectly I sugared his coffee — and better than praise were those few occasions when I had him to myself, when our mother was at work and my brother had gone outside, or when, during an evening in front of the television, I found myself sitting beside him, close enough that our legs touched. I felt the heat of the Frog’s body, as he must’ve been able to feel mine, and whatever movie we were watching melted into a kaleidoscope of meaningless movement, my senses attuned only to those places where we touched, where it seemed our auras were mingling and some silent solidarity was being communicated through the seams of our jeans.

“You’re a good kid,” he told me once, gripping my knee and giving it a shake.

“You, too,” I said, blushing as I still do when embarrassed — not a charming pink but a scalding medical-emergency red.

Summer shimmered into fall, and the Frog took up jogging. It was good for the circulation, he said, and he worried he was getting a paunch. While we readied ourselves for school, he stood at the edge of the yard stretching his quads, blowing into his hands. We’d never seen anyone jog in real life, and we watched as he loped off down the canyon, his form growing smaller and smaller as his long legs carried him over miles of oil-field roads. He ran in his old jeans, which had been dark and stiff when he arrived but were now a faded blue. Our mother wouldn’t think of buying him sweats. “He eats his weight in spaghetti every night,” she said. “Between the three of you, I can barely make ends meet!”

Ends-meat, I understood her to mean. The toughest and least flavorful cut.

After the first snowfall, she took a second job delivering newspapers, rising before dawn to sputter over the frozen roads in her little Datsun. At midday she drove into town and cleaned for her ladies. By the time her truck rumbled back down the hill, darkness was falling, and we watched out the window as she trudged to the shed, hefted a hay bale onto her thigh, and lugged it to the pasture. In the fading light she had to play referee between the horses, guarding Sweet Macho against Gert, who could be downright ferocious when it came to food.

One night our mother came in to find us sitting in a collapsed blanket fort, wearing three of her ladies’ dowdiest negligees. I don’t remember what game we’d been playing exactly, only that it involved British accents and there was costume jewelry strewn around. In lieu of greeting, the Frog glugged the last of his soda, swallowed a breath, and cut loose with his daily attempt to belch his way through the alphabet.

He reached q — bellowing, breathless, and triumphant.

Our mother sat down and took off her shoes, flexing one foot and then the other. In a quiet voice she said, “That’s the last time.”

“Relax,” the Frog said. “We’re reciting the alphabet. It’s educational.”

“I don’t care what it is. I’m never coming home to this again.”

“Cheer up, would you? Let a little light in! You’re making life way harder than it needs to be.”

“Oh, cut the crap, Dave.”

It was a shock to hear his real name. Even he looked stunned. He blinked and swallowed. “Dave? Who the heck is Dave?”

With a sudden swipe of her arm, our mother cleared the coffee table. Cups, dominos, half-full cans of soda, a plastic ukulele — it all went tumbling to the floor, revealing a wood-grain surface I could not remember ever having seen. It was a slab of actual tree, with lines and whorls and cracks, the kind of thing someone had made, maybe even our father. Our mother’s cheeks were pink with fury. Her fists were clenched at her sides, and her chest rose and fell behind her heavy flannel shirt.

She was still a young woman then, with long legs and square shoulders and a pair of fine, flat eyebrows that gave her face a certain brightness. Pretty isn’t the right word — she was too sturdy and stern — but at the time I didn’t know you could call a woman handsome, and if I had I wouldn’t have dared. But that’s what she was. Perhaps after so many years around horses, she’d taken on something of their bearing — not a plodding draft horse but a creature that was weathered and wild, barely tame enough to halter.

“You’ve played your little game. You’ve had your fun. Now I want you out.”

The Frog was quiet a long time. Then he got up and removed the satin bathrobe he’d been wearing. He walked to the window and looked out. It was almost dark, but patches of snow still glowed in the pasture, and we could see the black sawtooth of the tree line along the canyon rim. His shoulders fell. He ran one hand through his overgrown hair.

“Okay, I’ll admit it. I screwed this whole thing up. I was trying to have a little fun and it snowballed on me. But hear me out, will you? Before you do anything rash?” He looked at our mother, who stood unnaturally still, and at my brother and me, reclining absurdly in our pile of blankets. When his eyes met mine, I wanted badly to be standing up, or at least wearing my regular clothes and not some dumb pink frill. But there I was, mute and unprepared, the picture of childishness. I hated myself for having played such a pointless game in the first place.

“You know when you’re a kid,” the Frog began, “and there are all these things you’re going to do? Well, the years go by, and one day you realize you’re never going to do any of them. You’re never going to fight fires, or write a play, or hike the Inca Trail. You’re never going to discover anything or save anyone. What you’re going to do is sit in a basement cubicle writing thirty-second ad spots for used Toyota Camrys, sixty to a hundred a day. You’re going to type ‘automatic transmission’ until you forget what it means, and then you’re going to type it again. You’re going to dream about four-cylinder engines and ABS brakes, and when you wake up in the morning, you’re going to feel nothing, absolutely nothing. I don’t mean you kids, of course — the sky is the limit for you guys! But for me, honest to God, falling off that horse was like going through a portal. All of a sudden I could be myself. Here with you guys, I could just be. You know what I mean? It recalibrated me completely. Believe me when I tell you I don’t know any Dave. That guy is gone. I’m standing in front of you a new man, one that wants to spend the rest of his life making this up to you.”

He turned to the window and gazed meaningfully out.

Our mother hurled a coffee cup into the wall beside his head.

He cleared the snow off of his car and tried the engine, which chugged a few times before it started. Nobody cheered. We children stood with our hands in our pockets as our mother watched from the doorway, half-hidden in shadow. It was one of those bright Colorado days that look like springtime even as the air bites through your clothes.

The Frog dipped his head in our mother’s direction, an acknowledging bow. Then he shuffled over and shook our hands, first mine, and then my brother’s. “Practice those jump shots,” he said. “More wrist, less elbow. And take good care of Shit for Brains. He’s still technically my cat.”

We nodded gravely and watched as he made a U-turn at the edge of the frozen yard. He drove away, up the steep hill that led to the county road, and it was only after his car had disappeared from sight and the last drone of its engine had faded from our ears that my brother turned on our mother, swinging fists and spitting rage.

“I hate you! You take every single good thing from my life!”

She knelt and held him in the straightjacket of her arms.

But she couldn’t hold him long. He left home at age fifteen, to follow our father’s trail into the oil fields of Texas. He still calls once a year or so, his voice coming deep and twangy through the phone. Our mother lives to hear from him, enamored of her son in that sticky way of old women. She’s as eccentric as one of her ladies now, with hair like a dry thistle. We take care of her, my husband and kids and I. We live just north of her, in a house we built ourselves, in the spot where she and the Frog used to picnic. From the kitchen I have a view of the steep road that leads into the canyon, and sometimes when I see a plume of dust I still imagine it’s him, and my ribs tighten in that familiar way. Why it should be the Frog I expect, rather than my father or my brother, I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s because the Frog had so little shame. He wouldn’t be held back by hurt feelings or questions of who had taken advantage of whom. He wouldn’t be afraid to see how things have changed, how many trees have died from drought, or how my mother has begun to shuffle her feet. No, the Frog would expect change and delight in it. He’d look me right in the eye and embrace my mother as a friend. He’d show us the gray streaking his temples and the old-man belly he’d grown. He’d lift his shirt and slap it and invite us to do the same. Perhaps he’d tell us where he went after he left us, whether he returned to Albuquerque or drove in the opposite direction, still searching for whatever he sought when he found us, that magnificent impossible thing.

Sweet Macho died of natural causes. One day in spring we saw buzzards circling, wings black and shining as his hair. Believe it or not, old Gert lives on. Sometimes I see her hobbling through the fields, dragging her shabby tail behind her. She is wild and woolly and swaybacked, fulfilling no child’s fantasy, wearing no false horn, having roamed in freedom twice the number of years she spent as a pet.

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