Strong for Potatoes

A Novel

Cynthia Thayer

St. Martin's Griffin

Strong For Potatoes
Blue riding her new bike. June 25, 1991 First pictures with my new tripod.
"Hey, you got an eyedropper?" Brian asked.
"You mean one of those things in the bottles, those long glass things?"
"Yeah, you know, you squeeze the rubber thing at the top and the stuff drips out."
The linen closet where the medicines were kept was dark and full of boxes and bottles. I rummaged through old towels, Halloween makeup, blond hair dye Mama used once when she found a gray hair, and finally found a bottle of antibiotic that I used when my eye socket got infected. I unscrewed the top and left the bottle in the closet, intending to replace the top later.
"Here, you mean this." I held up the dropper as if it were a trophy.
"Man, you are great. You can come up with anything. Now how about some booze."
"For us? For our picnic?" We were way too young to drink. I'd tried it a couple of times but never really took to it.
"No stupid, I'll tell you when we get to the pond. It's a surprise. We'll need some booze and a razor blade. Now this isn'tdangerous or anything like that." Even though he looked at me through those thick glasses and his eyeballs seemed to be swimming around behind the lenses, I could see his eyes sparkle with excitement.
I went back to the linen closet. Daddy had a scraggly beard and Mama hadn't ever shaved anything. Said she never would as long as she was of sound mind. But I remember some blades being there from Grandpa when he stayed overnight at Christmas. Grandpa only had a few facial hairs, being Passamaquoddy Indian and all, but what hairs he had, he shaved. The razor blades were under the hot-water bottle. I grabbed the package, Gillette Blue, in a steel safety case, and stuck it in my pocket. I wanted to insist that Brian tell me what we were going to do, but I liked the idea of a surprise so much I didn't.
The liquor was in the old sideboard at the end of the big room. Mostly gin. That was what Daddy drank. I guessed it would do. There were two large bottles with a foreign sounding name and "gin" underneath. Behind them was a brand-new pint bottle of Fleischmann's that I grabbed and stuck in my jacket pocket. So far I had only stolen small amounts of change from my parents, never anything as serious as liquor. But they were both out and probably wouldn't notice anyway. I thought about calling Berry for advice, but Brian didn't even know about her, and it would be too complicated to explain her to him. I never called Berry to come when anyone else was around because people wouldn't understand. They would think that I didn't know that she died years ago. They would think that I was delusional.
Brian was in the kitchen finishing our lunches. One sprouts and one peanut butter sandwich for each of us. It was kind of a joke, but we never changed the menu. "Hey, Blue, made you a sandwich."
"I got 'em. The blades. In my pocket. Let's go."
Brian grabbed the bucket he brought from home and the bag of sandwiches, and we headed down the dirt driveway on our bikes toward the pond.
We chose the shorter way through the woods rather than take the scenic road near the shore. The wild strawberry plants along the side of the road had blossomed overnight, promising luscious berries in a few weeks.
The pond was beautiful that day, wildflowers everywhere, little violets, daffodils that the Ladies of the Pond had planted. It had just rained, and that smell that tells you it is going to rain or that it has just rained was strong. We pedaled our way through the mud around the pond and settled into our spot under the willow tree. We had just finished the seventh grade and had been coming here for years. No one else ever sat at our willow tree. But today there were two used rubbers in our spot. Looked pretty fresh, too. I knew what they were, saw them in the church parking lot one time and Daddy said that at least they could have taken the evidence with them. Mama said not to touch them. She said we didn't know whose they were. I wonder if that would have made a difference.
Brian picked the condoms up with a leaf and threw them into the rosebushes. He raked the grass with his feet like an animal might, to make a predator think that a large and strong animal had been there. He brushed his hands together and turned to face me.
"Ready to catch frogs?" Brian asked, raising his eyebrows, which made his eyes look even bigger.
"Does this have something to do with all the stuff we brought?"
"You'll see. Let's leave everything here 'til we get back with the frogs."
Brian put the lunch by the base of a large willow, and we headed for the swamp. Brian always waited for me to catchup. I ran with my right eye leading, and I still limped a bit from the accident. As we ran through the wild rosebushes, I grabbed at his sweatshirt. I hated that I couldn't keep up.
"Hey, Brian," I shouted. "Wait up. What are we doing?"
He kept running, the bucket swinging and banging on his leg. We often caught frogs and tried to have races to see whose frog was faster, but they always got away, and we couldn't keep up with them to decide the winner. I ran on behind, a little like Superman, my fist stuck out ahead to push away the bushes and occasionally grab Brian, my head cocked to the side to see where I was going. We both slid down the bank by the swampy little pond and took off our shoes and socks. My shoes took forever to unlace; they were black and high and ugly and I hated them. I let Brian help me. The doctor said soon I could have sneakers like the other kids, and Mama said I could have any kind I wanted. But I didn't have them yet.
We didn't have to confer on the frog-catching plan. Slowly and quietly we crept along the edge of the pond, the mud squishing up between our toes the only sound except for the croaking of the frogs. They sat at the edge of the pond, in the grass, or on a rock close to shore. Sometimes they sat on a lily pad, waiting for something good to pass by. Frogs can't leap backwards, so the trick was to be ready with one of your hands to head off the frog's leap to freedom.
"Got one."
"Yup, me too. Here." I held out my frog and Brian held out his bucket.
We worked the edge of the pond about half-way around, taking turns carrying the bucket, which grew heavy. Our feet made sucking sounds when we pulled them out of the mud, turning the water around us a murky brown.
"We must have enough by now. Here, you carry it back."
"Fair enough," Brian said as he reached for the handle.
The way back to the willow tree was slower. We had put our muddy feet right into our socks and shoes, so walking was soggy, and our feet squished as we walked. Gone was my Superman image. Every once in a while a frog would jump out of the bucket.
"Escapee!" I shouted.
I knew there were lots of frogs in that bucket, and it didn't matter if we lost one or two, but the excitement of catching the ones who tried to get away was irresistible.
"There's another." I grabbed for the frog as it made frantic jumps toward the pond. "Got it." I looked back at Brian to see if he was watching. I held my pose, one leg in the air with the very large frog wriggling in my hand, until I was sure he had a good look.
"I can get one that big." He looked through the grass frantically, with his face close to the muddy bank.
"That's enough. Don't we have enough?" I started back, knowing that he would follow.
Back at the willow tree we took our places at the bucket. We usually chose what we thought to be the strongest and most agile frogs for the race.
"Get the eye-dropper out, and the liquor," Brian said. His voice sounded louder than usual, as if he was making a speech. I pulled the bottle and glass tube out from the big pockets of my lumberjack shirt and presented them over the frog bucket.
"But what about the razor blades?"
"Not yet," Brian said as he drew some of the gin up into the dropper. "First we're going to get these babies drunk. Now, get a frog, a big one, and hold it good and tight." His freckled hand shook a little as he held the rubber tube at the top of the dropper.
I knew then that whatever we were going to do to the frog, I would not want done to me. I also knew that I was going togo along with just about anything Brian suggested. The worst part of it all was that I felt that I was going to enjoy every minute of it.
I picked the biggest, most well developed, oldest-looking frog in the bucket and held it out to Brian, mouth facing him. Brian opened the frog's mouth with one hand while he squirted the gin in with the other. The frog kicked its back legs against the air and its front legs against my hand. I had to slip the fingers from my other hand around the frog's head like scissors to keep his head still. Again Brian filled the dropper and squirted more gin into the frog. They told us in school that too many drinks of alcohol could kill a person. I wondered at that moment how many drinks it would take to kill a frog, and if it really mattered. It occurred to me that frogs might not be embarrassed about being so exposed. I certainly would be.
We waited for a minute to see if the frog would pass out.
"Brian, I think it needs a bit more."
He squeezed the bulb at the top of the dropper and more gin filled the glass tube. "OK, but this oughta do it."
He squeezed very slowly this time, watching me, watching the frog. I felt the frog change in my hand, relax sort of, legs moving a bit in slow motion, jaw opening and closing. I sensed that we were in control. That the frog had lost everything.
"That's it, he's crocked," I said with all the confidence I could muster.
"Gimme the frog." Brian gently transferred the frog into his own hands. "Let's put him down over here." There was a flat piece of ledge near the willow tree where he placed the frog, belly up. Its underside was so white, smooth.
We crouched around the heaving thing. It looked like rubber, like the rubber frogs you can find in a dime store. But it wasn't rubber.
"Now the razor blades." Brian looked at me sternly and heldout his hand. "Now, not tomorrow." I knew we were going to cut that frog somewhere. I looked at the belly moving up and down on the rock. "Jeeze, do ya want to be part of this or are you a baby?"
My hand went to my pocket. The blades were still there, in that little blue steel package. I took the package out and looked at it. I was trying to hurry but seemed to be operating in slow motion. My thumb pushed at the opening in the package, pushed on the blade, and it eased its way out of the slot on the end. Brian pulled the blade away before it was all the way out and nicked my thumb.
"Ohh." I made some kind of noise, and stuck my thumb in my mouth to lick the salty blood off. I didn't want him to think I was a wimp just because I was a girl.
Brian started the cut, started at the neck, right where the frog would wear a necklace if it were a princess. We had done this to the formaldehyde frogs in science lab but never to a live one. Its arm made a little fluttering movement and then fell back onto the rock. "Jeeze, Blue, you do some now. I can't do everything just because I'm the boy." As I reached for the blade I could see his hand still shaking a little. I tried hard to hold my own hand still. I knew I could do this.
"I'll do the next cut." I continued with the blade from the neck to where the hind legs joined the body. The cut was so straight. It didn't need to be deep. Just deep enough to cut through the packaging. My hand seemed to act on its own as I watched. The blade ran across its chest and pelvis, like one of those little variety packs of cereal where you cut the box, lift the flaps, and eat right out of the container. Brian sat there on the grass watching as I peeled back the white covering of skin. The arm no longer moved, but things were still moving inside.
"Wow, look at that." I looked up at Brian. He swallowed. For the first time I noticed his Adam's apple bobbing up and down.
The frog's heart, thump, thump, and the rest of the stuff, all working, moving. I could tell the organs from science lab, and they were all doing something, except that the whole frog wasn't working together, just its individual parts. I leaned closer to see the breathing and we sat, watching the frog slowly die. It took a long time. Exposed, open for us to see, spread out. No privacy here. I remembered how frantically they had tried to get away. The heart slowed way down, the breathing became light, the other organs stopped one at a time. Poop came out, the same frog poop that we always threatened to wipe on each other. Now it just dripped down the ledge. Not a threat to anyone. I wondered if people pooped when they died. I thought that if Daddy was here, he would take a picture of the opened frog as Brian and I leaned over it, watching the results of our handiwork. Perhaps he would write, Blue and Brian carve up a live frog, June 25, 1990, underneath the picture.
"Look at that." Brian's voice shook. The frog body gave a small shudder and then flattened itself to the rock. The organs had quit. "Oh shit, the frog is dead." His voice didn't sound familiar, and that scared me. "Oh shit, what did I do?"
As if some early training took over, I slipped the used blade into the disposal slot in the blue steel package and put it back in my pocket, all the while watching Brian out of the corner of my eye. His hand stayed where it had been as if still holding the blade and his face screwed up like that crybaby girl in the class below us. I had never seen a boy cry; my dad a few times, but never a boy in class, never Brian, and certainly never with a screwed-up face and big sobs coming out like this. "Ahhhh. I killed the stupid frog. Ahhhhh," he cried out of his very open mouth. I glanced at the frog. Its mouth was very open, too, but no noise came out.
I reached for Brian's hand, the one that had been holding the blade, and brought it close to me. When I was little, Mamaalways held me if I cried, and Daddy would carry me to his chair and tell me stories. I held Brian's hand as he sobbed. That's all, but it was enough. He cried for a long time, and I held on tight with both hands. I didn't watch him. Instead I watched the frog. The flies came and buzzed loudly in the guts, and more green stuff dripped down the rocks. It was alright, everything, it would be alright.
Brian stopped after a while and pulled his hand back. I gave it to him, but I kissed it first. He didn't seem to mind. He took his glasses off and sniffed and wiped his nose and eyes on his shirt without saying anything. After he put his glasses back on, he got up quietly and headed toward the bikes. I stood up and dumped the bucket of frogs near the little lily pond. We never ate our lunch.
"But the lunch," I said.
It wasn't important, so the lunch and the frog body were left by the willow tree. I pedaled behind him. Usually Brian waited for me to catch up, but he didn't wait, and I didn't push myself. He needed some time alone. I'd known Brian a long time, since my first day at school.
Daddy had been taking pictures that day. Click, click. "Blue dear, turn to the right, smile at Daddy, now, oh great, what a shot," he would say. Daddy with his new tripod, trying to get my good side. The side with the eye, not the eye patch. There was another father there taking pictures of his little boy, no tripod, just a little Instamatic. "Smile, Brian," and the little boy stuck his thumbs in his ears and wiggled his fingers at the camera. I looked wistfully at his feet. Sneakers.
I stayed just behind him as we biked along the ocean road. I think he was embarrassed about the frog. I wondered if we would stay the same kind of friends as we'd always been. His head was down as he pedaled along, and it almost made me want to cry.
Brian liked me in school. That first year he was about the only one who did. After the accident I couldn't talk right. Words that I thought in my head came out all wrong. That first week he gave me a cookie from his snack. I tried to say thank you but it came out "piss on it." He seemed to understand what I meant and said, "You're welcome." He was very polite.
"Gee, Blue, what's that stuff in your sandwich?" Brian said that day at lunch. I looked at Brian, waiting for Berry to tell me what to say but knowing she wouldn't. "Looks like little worms to me." Brian always sat with me at lunch. No one wanted to be seen with him either. He wore thick glasses. "Well, what is that stuff?" Brian put down his lunch and looked at my eye through his lenses.
"Poop cookies."
"How come everything is poop?" He poked at the sprouts sticking out between the cheese slices and mustard. "Doesn't look like poop to me, worms more like it." I wanted peanut butter sandwiches like his mother made him. Since then, that's why we always took one of each.
Berry just lay in my mind that first day of school, drooling, her both eyes open, her mouth open, too. I knew it wasn't really Berry who told me what to say, I knew she was just in my mind, that the real Berry, my dead, brainless twin, must be in some coffin in some cemetery somewhere.
As we biked back along the ocean road, I glanced at the headstones in the little cemetery. Brian was still just ahead of me, his head down, as if he might still be crying. The stones were spread out under all the trees and around a little pond. I had stopped there many times. Looked at the stones. No Berry Willoughby. But she could be in there. There were a lot of stones and a lot of names. "Brian, want to stop for a minute?" No response. Just slow, steady pedaling. I stopped for a second, looked around, then started up again.
Mama and Daddy hardly ever talked about Berry, but I picked up bits and pieces. They found out about us just before we were born. Two babies. Twins. I was born first, so they named me Blue, and my twin, Berry. Almost born in a blueberry field, everyone said. For months they had been thinking, "Baby." The Baby will sleep here, one high chair, one crib, one stroller. As it turned out, one of each was enough because Berry never made it out of the hospital alive. Something was very wrong inside that couldn't be fixed. There was no brain. There we were, lying side by side on Mama's hospital bed, identical, except Berry didn't have a brain, and I did. She knew nothing, absolutely nothing. Then she died. As I grew, she grew, too, in my mind, lying there, unresponsive, blank faced. And no one else knew about her.
Brian stopped suddenly. I pulled up to his bike. "Blue, I would've finished the cutting. I just never did anything like that before. But I could do it. Next time, I'll do it." His eyebrows raised, as if questioning himself, and I could see the apprehension in his eyes.
"OK," I said. "I know you could. Just as good as me." I didn't want to say anything more.
We never talked about that incident until many years later. The summer was full of biking, swimming, lazing around, having picnics in the cemetery, ostensibly because I liked the scenery. The first day of school came again. Brian and I were still close friends. He was the best.
STRONG FOR POTATOES. Copyright © 1998 by Cynthia Thayer. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.