A few days after the space shuttle disintegrated in earth’s upper atmosphere, a frog crawls out of the mucky pond near my house and croaks out the first, hoarse frog song of the season.
“Hear that?” asks Charlie as the notes float in with the dusk through my kitchen window, opened wide to let out the smoke from our hand-rolled cigarettes.
It’s a sad song, as if the lone frog is wondering where all the lovely alder leaves have gone since he last looked up, a lament like a blues, scratched out against the sandpaper of a done-me-wrong woman’s heart.
Charlie, hopelessly romantic and extremely myopic, removes his glasses and rubs his closed eyelids. He scans my face with soft, watery eyes. For the past hour he’s been moaning about his latest flame-out. The weird thing is that Charlie never even flirted with her. He didn’t have to. She came on to him. According to Charlie, if Melanie were a firefly, her tail would’ve flashed on and off. One flick of her lashes and his undies suddenly felt too tight. She moved on her six-inch heels with the easy grace of a dancer and her sultry syllables over the phone could sizzle trunk lines. Ten-gauge Romex! But Melanie was no ballerina in bed. In fact, Charlie never got that far with her, never got beyond one clumsy paw fumbling with a stubborn bra strap before she spun forever out of his embrace. Issues. She had issues with men she was working on, issues with her father. Issues with what she called “doing the nasty.”
“I wonder if there were amphibians aboard?”
“What’re you talking about, Charlie? Challenger?”
“Yeah. We’ve heard endless palaver about loose panels and missed memos and space agency cover-ups, but nothing about what the shuttle was shuttling. Besides the seven unlucky humans.”
Charlie tells me that in high school he had this geeky genius friend Harry whose projects always won the Science Fair. His bedroom was crammed with fossils and bugs pinned to cardboard. Incandescent fish tirelessly made the rounds of an aquarium, and lizards tested the air around them with quick, forked tongues. Harry could spend hours at the microscope, squinting at an amoeba encircling dinner or a Columbus of a paramecium waving its cilia to reach some fabled Cathay far across the waters. He eventually wrote his doctoral dissertation on frogs and, in conjunction with various researchers at NASA, authored several scientific articles concerning the effects of weightlessness on the digestive systems, brain wave activity and mating habits of the genus Rana. Amphinauts he dubbed these frogs in space, or brachynauts, astrophibians, or something like that.
Frogs hadn’t always held first place in Harry’s affections. Aided by scholarships, fawned upon by his biology professors, he breezed through college without subjecting a single amphibian to his inquisitive glare. Only later on, in graduate school, stumped for a suitably innovative dissertation topic, did he stumble across the fact that nobody knew how, exactly, tadpoles eat.
The prize-winning professor he was assisting in an investigation of frogs as reliable indicator species for environmental degradation couldn’t answer the simple question. Neither could the tomes or journals Harry combed through in the library. The generations of pollywogs he and the professor raised in tanks laced with various pollutants wiggled their way into full froghood, obviously ingesting something to increase their bulk, but no scientist had ever bothered to find out how. Moreover, none of the great minds had the slightest clue what, exactly, was on the menu.
Harry decided to carry out his research in vivo. He grabbed his hat, his coat and a loaf of bread, and hurried out to a nearby pond to make the acquaintance of some local frogs in the larval state, to lunch with them and discover the secrets of their gustatory behavior. He couldn’t have chosen a better time for his project. That spring produced a bumper crop of tadpoles. Sunup to sundown he kneeled by the water’s edge, still, afraid of disturbing the jittery little things.
Weeks passed. His initial enthusiasm changed to dejection. His features became pinched, his temper short. Each evening he dragged himself home from his observation post, toyed with a dab of supper, then drooped exhausted into bed. During all that time he had failed to observe a single tadpole having a meal.
“Dreadful little beasts,” he confided to one of his colleagues, a specialist in buttercups who hid her charms beneath the frumpiest outfits imaginable.
Harry was thinking about how her thick glasses clunked against his the first, and only, time they kissed. Worse, even their teeth clinked that one time their lips parted for each other. She was thinking about her childhood collie Marmalade. She found him abandoned in the rain, a shivering bundle of bones. His many strange tics made it obvious that his former owners had abused him. If Marmalade received so much as a cross look, for example, he would roll over on his back, whimper, and urinate all over himself.
What she thought might really interest Harry, though, was the enigma of Marmalade’s empty bowl. The collie was obviously getting nourishment because he put on weight, his coat grew glossy, and he was full of pep. Yet he had never demonstrated the most miniscule desire for food. If the buttercup specialist stuck a slice of roast beef in Marmalade’s maw, it would hang there uneaten for a moment, then be dropped to the floor, slightly slobbery but ungnawed. As far as his regular bowl of food went, Marmalade would pass it by without a sniff. But later, quite mysteriously, there wouldn’t be a kibble left. Then, hearing a faint crunching coming from the kitchen one night, she slithered out of bed and crept downstairs. There in the kitchen, in a pool of moonlight, was Marmalade, hovering over the bowl. Each bite he took was accompanied by an anxious glance over his haunches, as if he were a thief anxious about being caught in the act.
“Owls,” mumbled Harry. “Blooming night-blooming jasmine. Heliophobes. Noctophagic amphibia. Rana catesbiana. Right under my nose. Cryptosa.”
Within a week, armed with the military’s highest-tech night vision goggles, Harry was stretched out beside the pond under the stars, peering into the murky water. Nocturnal observation revealed no more than the diurnal variety. He was soon talking to the irises unfolding along the banks, or to himself. The conclusion of his arduous research was that tadpoles dine upon the invisible or are invisible when they dine. He imagined the sly creatures were smirking at him, at his utter lack of success.
A man with a delicious sense of irony once noted that there’s no failure like success. The reverse may also often be true. It was in Harry’s case, at least, for it was his failure to discover the culinary niceties of tadpoles which led to an important discovery and a doctorate. Weary of the amphibian antics and wanting to get even, Harry scooped a jarful of tadpoles out of the pond and brought them home for dinner.
His fork speared a fresh tadpole, lightly grilled with butter and a few slices of lemon. He slipped it into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Salty it was. Very salty, a bit like gamy caviar, though a trifle more pungent. A good match for a fruity Chardonnay. He gobbled down a few more of his tormentors, quickly, several at a time. And then he hit a bad one. Harry gagged at the bitter taste, enough to turn his gullet inside-out. Strange. The brave and always inquisitive Harry tried another. This one was quite tolerable, tasty even. Then he chanced upon another loser.
How come some were quite passable and others putrid? Harry wouldn’t rest until he’d ferreted out the answer. A true scientist, he sacrificed his palate for the sake of knowledge, eating tadpoles night after night. He began gathering the tadpoles for these subsequent banquets more carefully, noting variables such as water and air temperature, time of day, phase of the moon, shade or sunlight, pH. He noted the place of acquisition: the weeds along the bank, the middle of the pond, the warm current between the two extremes.
“Let me count the ways,” says Charlie, “Harry fixed tadpoles. Gratineed, fricasseed, fried with tomatoes. Sautéed, roasted with dill, stewed with almonds, with apples, broiled, boiled, pickled, poached on toast. Smothered with garlic, ground into patties, baked in a custard, drenched with oil, coated with breadcrumbs, blanched, jellied with aspic.”
Only the most dedicated and gifted of scientists would’ve discovered the answer, which Harry was able to neatly harmonize with the theory of natural selection. The most important factor in tadpole taste is habitat. Those polliwogs Harry gathered from the open waters of the pond made him retch, while those he scooped from among the tangles of reeds, fallen leaves and twigs along the shore were quite flavorsome. As Harry once put it to Charlie, sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to grasp. After all, it should’ve been perfectly clear to him from the start that if you’re good to eat, you better hide, while if you taste bad you can swim about the pond anywhere you please, without fear of predators.
“Ergo, the most succulent tadpoles are the hardest to find?”
“Absolutely,” says Charlie. “And I suppose the rule applies to the fair sex, as well.”
The silence following my question is broken by a chorus of frogs waking from a winter sleep. One particularly strangled croak almost sounds like the mating yowl from a cat with a hairball lodged in its throat.