Read Who Will Run the Frog Hospital Online

Authors: Lorrie Moore

Tags: #Adult, #Contemporary

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BOOK: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital
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The parking lot at the Lake Arts Center was already full, and attendants were routing people into a spare one in the rear, usually reserved for employees. We parked there, got out, and headed for the entrance, an old blanket over our arm, a six-pack of Coca-Cola, and a pack of cigarettes. All around us were young men in beards and cutoffs, women in peasant dresses, buffalo sandals, and silver bracelets, carting thermoses, ice chests, lawn umbrellas that said “Peace.” Police were stationed just inside the entrance to inspect thermoses and ice chests for alcohol, but besides that there was something wonderful in the air: the loud, crowded, summery feeling of a rock concert, not Woodstock maybe, but we had only been twelve then. This was something festive for us now that we were fifteen; everyone older had been doing this for a while, and they did it with calm and know-how; nothing new or disorganized. Some of them carried babies. We observed them, fell in close to them in line, sat next to them on the lawn. Lawn seats were the cheapest: two-fifty apiece. We paid, got our tickets, headed in.

Music, for us back then, evoked various exiling and confounded moods, states of hallucination, states of love. A song was the timeless truth beneath the surface of things. It was a standing-still trip to the sea! It was a blow to the chest, like a boy you liked suddenly entering the room. It filled you with
excitement and shy, deep knowledge. Two-fifty was nothing. We pushed ahead, fell in with the pace of the crowd. We prepared our hearts for something drenching and big.

Somehow we got separated from LaRoue. Did we intend to? I remembered a stinginess of hers in the car, how she’d refused us the chewing gum she had four sticks of in her pocket, and as Sils and I moved through the gate, past the ticket takers and off at a slight diagonal, the crowd moved in between LaRoue and us. She was trudging too slowly behind. I thought I heard her voice, but I didn’t turn around.

“Hey, you guys. Wait up!”

We kept walking straight for a favorite place on a hill near a concrete piling, the place we usually sat at concerts, leaning up against the cement to drink our Cokes, moving in under the balcony ramp in case it began to drizzle.

“Where’s LaRoue?” asked Sils.

I finally turned around. I couldn’t see her anywhere. And the success of this treachery, of my having used her so completely, stunned me. Where was she? Now I scanned the curving bowl of the concert lawn full of faces and heads and blankets and jackets and ice boxes, and I thought perhaps I did see LaRoue way off to one side, on some dirt, sitting alone without a blanket, looking lost and fat.

“I don’t know where she is,” I said. “We’ll get a ride back some other way.” I said this breezily. “We’ll hitch.”

“Maybe,” said Sils cautiously. “I wish I’d brought a joint.” She lit a Salem instead, and offered one to me, which I took.

Linda Ronstadt opened for the James Gang and everyone talked all the way through it, as if she were just some local girl who’d managed to crawl up there and fill time. When the James Gang finally appeared the crowd stood and cheered. The sky had darkened, and the stage shone bright as fire in a hearth. Everywhere in the air was the ropy smoke of pot. The
boys next to us offered us some of theirs, and we took it, in turn, placing our own mouths where theirs had been on the wet paper, then passing it along, like a communion plate or a petition of ash and saliva: a large, smoking spitball shot out at all the teachers of the world. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!” The crowd roared, and the band started up.

For the next hour electric guitars wailed and keened in protest of all that we were forced to be in this life. “Man, oh man,” murmured the people around us. Four boys climbed up on the second-tier railing and swayed back and forth to the music, their limbs occasionally jolting and spazzing. It was a dance style I’d seen before. It was acid—something that scared and fascinated me. “Do you want to take a trip, a sugar trip, a trip to sugar mountain?” I’d been asked that before at bars. “No thanks,” I’d said. For all my recklessness, I feared chromosome damage. I feared accidentally starting a brand-new species. I believed all the talk about damage to your very
genetic material
—though it turned out later not to be true.

I could have been up there with those boys.

There was a slight snap in the air from the lake, and Sils and I huddled under the blanket for warmth. Feeling the heat of her so close, I thought about how seldom we slept over these days, me in that sleeping bag at the foot of her bed, or she at the foot of mine, the routine intimacy of that, our talking out into the dark of our rooms, the cemetery quiet out the window and us with our jokes and sighs and then our sleep, side by side in duet, our breaths staggered like a round. Only once had we ever had a fight—she accused me of having deliberately developed a laugh like someone else, someone named Leslie Fish. She accused me of wanting to hang out with Leslie and be like Leslie, which summoned up such outrage on my part that I struck Sils in the arm and then rushed home in tears, waiting the week out until at last we were friends again.

It had been true about the laugh, and I never laughed like that again.

Now everyone on the lawn stood and so did we, in our large blanket cape, and the whole audience lit matches for an encore, the ground around us like some fantastic birthday cake in the dark, but the band refused to come back. So we packed up and made our way toward the exit with the crowd. I looked in vain for LaRoue, my cruelty toward her now in me like a splinter, where it would sit for years in my helpless memory, the skin growing around; what else can memory do? It can do nothing: It pretends to eat the shrapnel of your acts, yet it cannot swallow or chew.

I looked toward the lot where we had parked, but the car seemed not to be there.

“Let’s call a cab,” said Sils.

“What do you mean?”

“With the money,” she said. “Let’s take a cab back home.”

“There’s probably someone here we know.” I was reluctant to spend the money like this.

“Like who?”

“I don’t know. Maybe Markie Russo and those guys,” I said. Markie Russo had once had a crush on Sils and I was sure he would have given her a ride home in a second. But everyone was heading purposefully toward their cars and I recognized none of them. We were still walking with the blanket around us, like medieval orphans.

“There’s a phone,” said Sils, and so we called a cab. Hiller’s Cab Company. “I’ll be there as soon as possible,” said the voice at the other end. We waited right there by the phone booth, smoking cigarettes, tapping our feet, watching the dispersing crowd.

The cabbie who came for us was a strange dwarf of a
man: balding, shiny head; fingers fat as wursts; his body squat and globular; his legs so short and misshapen there was some apparatus constructed on the pedals of the cab so that he could drive.

We got in, gave him my address, and he pulled out of the parking lot. The traffic was heavy from the concert and jammed at the next corner near the main light. In his rearview mirror he could see us sorting our money. We had brought forty dollars with us and were counting what was left.

“Where you girls work?”

I didn’t say anything. I looked out the window, past the traffic, toward the lake.

“Storyland,” said Sils. There was something brazen and high from the pot in her voice. “I’m Cinderella there,” she added. I could tell she wanted, just for the fun of it, to shock him somehow.

“Is that right?” He looked in the rearview mirror again, to check her out, I supposed. But instead he looked mostly at me. As if I were the guard or the interpreter. “I used to work there myself as Humpty Dumpty—before they got that ceramic, mechanical one.” Now he turned hopefully to look at us both in the backseat.

“Really?” I said.

“Should we call you Humpty?” asked Sils.

“Sure.” He smiled.

“We can’t call you Humpty,” she chided. “We’ll have to call you, um—Humphrey!” and we burst our laughing, in a stoned, mean way, but he laughed with us, and we all just sat there in the night traffic laughing in the uncontrolled, hysterical way of people who rarely got what they wanted in life though they also didn’t try very hard.

We didn’t stop. The laughter built—especially his—to tears and gasps. Three fools from Horsehearts—how funny! We

couldn’t stop. Even after our cabbie grew quiet, Sils and I sank against the cab doors and snorted, while he sighed and cleared his throat, silently taking the correct turns and driving us the ten miles back to my house. I thought of the time in fifth grade when our science teacher had made some of us be planets and positioned us in town according to where the planets would actually be, relatively speaking. The downtown library was the sun, and Jerry Murphy, who was Mercury, was positioned right there on the library steps. He was dressed in red and carried a little sign with the name of his planet on it. Sils had been Venus and was made to stand by the Civil War monument, two blocks away, draped in gauzy material meant to resemble clouds. But I was Pluto, and had to stand several miles outside of town, in the middle of the countryside. The teacher drove me there herself. And I stood there all afternoon, in black leotards, next to a dairy farm and a cornfield, with my little sign that said Pluto. The local paper came by and took my picture and Sils’s older brothers drove past in their car and honked and hooted. Despite the humiliation, I felt close to Sils then. Because of her brothers. Because we were in outer space together, and her brothers had come by to see me.

Which for some reason was how I felt now in the cab, with the cabbie, and our all laughing together. I felt, perhaps because of the pot, like we were all planets in the same solar system—which was all I had ever wanted or asked from people, anyone, ever.

“Thanks,” we said when we got out. And we tipped him twenty dollars, “just to blow his mind,” Sils whispered.

“Do you think we did? Do you think we blew his mind?”

He hadn’t looked to examine the bills. He’d just stuffed them into his pocket.

“He’ll look. He’ll see,” said Sils.

When we went inside, only Claude was still up. He was
sprawled on the couch, under a blanket, watching TV like a sick person. In the last six months he’d been growing in the pale, disproportionate way of adolescents and leggy plants—his limbs and feet sending themselves out past his cuffs like antennae. But he was still a little boy and self-conscious. I always suspected him of having a crush on Sils.

“Hi,” he grunted, turning his head just slightly to see us, then he blushed and turned back to the television.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi, Claude,” Sils said a little flirtatiously.

“Hi,” he said again.

“Did LaRoue already come in?” I asked, suddenly worried.

“Yeah,” he said absently. That was all. We tiptoed back to my room, trying not to squeak the floorboards and bring one of my parents down to lecture us for staying out late and being generally inconsiderate what was it with us girls.

When later in life she would appear—in a dream with a group of people, or in a thought about friends I never saw anymore, those I’d consented to lose and live without—she often appeared, in sleep or pensiveness, as she did the next morning when she awoke, dashed to the bathroom, and threw up. She came back to the room gray and perspiring, and I gave her my bathrobe to wear. It was a white seersucker robe, and her hair fell to the inside of the neck of it, making a kind of pageboy, a frame, like the hood of a cape around her face. It was the way she often looked in winter, when she wore a coat: her hair tucked inside, looking as if it had suddenly been bobbed. I knew all the hairstyles and looks of her; there were a dozen or so, and I knew them all. Each time I saw one again, I would say to myself, “Oh, yes, that one.”

“I’m going to have to make an appointment and just go,” she said.

I brought her orange juice and ice water and toast buttered so hard it had ripped the bread.

“I’ll go with you,” I said. “We’ll call Humphrey, and we’ll go.”

Which is what we did.

The following week Sils went to the local doctor, was given a pregnancy test and a referral. Then we phoned Humphrey, our cabbie, got him to meet us at the rear entrance of Horsehearts Park, near the pond where the heartless horses had reputedly been tossed, and we hopped into our cab to Vermont.

“Glad to see you girls again.” The drive was along the old Boston Post Road, and then up through farmland, mountains, past little orchards and churchyards with saintly white churches and graves. It was going to cost seventy-five dollars, round-trip, tip included. I remember thinking that once there had been a time when women died of brain fevers caught from the prick of their hat pins, and that still, after all this time, it was hard being a girl, lugging around these bodies that were never right—wounds that needed fixing, heads that needed hats, corrections, corrections.

“Glad to see you, too,” I said.

Now the countryside rolled by us, in a timeless way, and I felt like Robin Hood within it. Rob, pay, give away: however improvised, there was beauty to thievery; there were also rules. But I felt I understood them. I felt the pure priestly rush of their fulfillment swell and shrink and swell again within me.

We had the address of the clinic—217 Elm Street, Rutland—and we had six hundred and fifty dollars in fives and tens, a few twenties. Sils was wearing a shirt of mine—a green floral blouse with puffed shoulders and tiny buttons down the front. For some reason she’d wanted to. She’d stood in front of my closet and pulled it off the hanger. “Can I
wear this to my abortion?” she’d asked, and, startled, I said, “Sure, if you want,” though the request frightened me and caused me to think too much about blood. I wondered whether I should have said yes at all. But now she sat beside me, wearing it, looking better in it than I ever could, her breasts pushing out at the fabric, whereas mine always shrank and shivered behind the hollow drape of it.

We passed through Hope, Argyle Hall, Mt. Bliss, and East Creek, the site of the East Creek Doll Hospital, where, when I was little, my mother would take my dolls to be repaired, an old Victorian house filled to the rafters with broken dolls—Barbies and baby dolls sitting bright-eyed all on top of one another in the parlor, on the stairs to upstairs, in the casements of the windows. The old woman who lived there collected dolls for their spare parts, eyes and limbs mostly, and if your doll had anything wrong with it, you could bring it to this woman, and she would fix it, keep it overnight. “We’ll just keep her overnight and give her some tea and some rest.” She was crotchety and doddering but with a magic wink that softened her face so that children could see she wasn’t scary; she wanted that known. Many of the grown-ups in town, the ones without daughters, didn’t know for sure. Her house seemed a witchy one, with spiders on the porch and a skyload of bats flying from her chimney at dusk.

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