Saturday, August 31, 2013

Closing Time: Jolson, Ruth and the Frog

Death has always been an ever-present reality to me. It has so many forms that its constant presence is not a fearful entity; it is instead a rather interesting companion.

There had been Babe Ruth and Al Jolson, for example.

I can remember the day Al Jolson died. I can’t remember a year or even, really, a place attached to this memory. What I remember is the effect the event had had on my mother. She was morose and tearful for days. I was too young to know who Al Jolson was but I was intensely aware, from my mother's reaction, how much this person must have meant to her.

And she was very important to me.

It followed that Al Jolson was important to me.

I can remember the day Babe Ruth died. That must have been 1948. I remember the event as having to do with running boards. My mother always let some of the kids in the neighborhood ride on the running boards of our pre-World War Two second hand car when she drove slowly through the neighborhood. That must have been Ballard. We moved from Ballard in 1949, so Babe Ruth must have died previously.

On that day my mother didn’t let the neighborhood kids ride on the running boards.

She was too upset.

She reacted similarly to her reaction to Al Jolson’s death.

I had no idea who Babe Ruth was, but he was important to my mother, so he was important to me.

Both of those very early incidents in my life – incidents I remember with total clarity – had only one subject: death.

Then there was the frog. The frog had been a sort of gift from my grandmother – my father’s mother. My father had been adopted, but that had been a fact, not a distinction, so she was my father’s mother, my grandmother. She had given me a tree frog in a fruit jar. The jar was half filled with water. The frog was light green, a rare color for a tree frog. I had been fascinated by the creature, and wouldn’t let it out of my sight all of the day I had received it. But night came, and my mother hadn’t wanted me to take the jar and the frog to bed with me, so she told me to put the jar on the front porch where I could retrieve it in the morning.

When morning came the flaw in that plan was grimly apparent. The sun had come up, bathing the front porch and the frog in the jar in its warmth. Unfortunately the jar had amplified the effect of the sunlight to a cooking temperature, and by the time I had gotten up and gone to see how the frog had made it through the night the frog hadn’t made it through the night.

The frog was dead.

It had been par-boiled.

I was inconsolable.

For reasons I have never able to reconstruct I poured the frog and its water out on the sidewalk in front of the house.

A little girl whose only known presence in my life related only to that place on the sidewalk came by and stepped on the frog and smashed it on the sidewalk.

I cried.

The little girl laughed uproariously.

I scraped up what I could and gave it a decent burial.

A significant residue of frog remained on the sidewalk for several days leaving a kind of greasy splotch as testimony of the frog’s grim demise.

That little girl stopped at the grease spot on the sidewalk multiple times over the next few days and laughed with the same unbridled vigor every time; and every time she appeared and indulged in her mirthful ritual she pointed at the spot on the sidewalk where she had ground the frog to oblivion. I still remember a mouth with little ugly teeth and clam colored lips emitting gales of what I would learn later to describe as obscene sounds that emulated laughter.

I have always thought in later years that the frog had been a symbol of good and the little girl had been the devil.

This event occurred early in the summer.

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