Pablo is dreaming about frogs the color of dirty motor oil. They are small with wrap-around grins and bulging eyes and there are thousands of them in the ditches flanking the road he is walking on. The frogs are jumping on each other either to get out of the ditch or because jump is what little black frogs do and, since there are so many of them, they have to do it all over each other, no one ever getting out, just senselessly changing their order in the ditch. It’s a bad dream, the pressure, and he wants it to end.
Uncome, uncome, uncome, Pablo shouts.
It works. He is awake, out of the dream.
Uncome? What a strange word.
He’ll have to remember it though he knows somehow it’s one he better not use too much or he’ll wear it out.
All is good again. Normal. Pablo has a big appetite for breakfast. He goes to work and there’s a message from the boss to come see him.
Pablo likes the boss and the boss likes Pablo. The boss leaves Pablo alone mostly which is a good sign, a sign of trust. Pablo isn’t worried that the boss wants to see him so early because the boss sometimes did that in certain cases when he would ask Pablo to shut the door and wheeze conspiratorially that one of his fellow workers wasn’t up to a job and would Pablo sort of, sort of, you know, cover for him, without the guy feeling bad.
Even as this makes Pablo feel good and trusted, it also makes him wonder if the boss ever did that with someone else about him but after his other jobs with the lousy bosses breathing down his neck and not trusting him and making him hate going to work, what a good boss this boss is.
When the boss wheezes conspiratorially he sounds like Marlon Brando in the Godfather doing something to take care of a member of the family. That’s the kind of boss the boss is, living by definite rules, protective of his own and not wanting them to feel bad.
Pablo worries about the boss because he is overweight and does nothing but stay at his desk way into the night drinking coffee and eating thick meat sandwiches as he talks to clients on speaker with the door open so everyone on the floor can hear the money piling up and it isn’t healthy and the boss’ belly just gets fatter and the sacks under his eyes droopier and his skin grayer and his ears and nose and eyebrows hairier and he’s generally going to pot like he doesn’t care about anything anymore. It isn’t even about the money. The boss has plenty. It’s about something else, sure, but Pablo can’t figure out what. Probably about the family, like it was for the Godfather. The boss takes the weight of the world on his shoulders when he doesn’t have to. Or so it seems to Pablo.
Pablo wishes he could tell the boss to stop working so hard and get some rest and go for a walk and eat a vegetable and slow down on the coffee but he doesn’t want to say any of that because it would be like bringing the word ‘death’ into the room and might just kill the boss. That’s how bad the boss is looking, like he could grab his chest and drop dead any second.
The boss is behind his desk in his rolling chair as usual but this time he doesn’t have a client on speaker but is talking to the corner deli that makes meat sandwiches so thick a normal person can’t finish one but here’s the boss ordering two for breakfast.
Corned beef, Mario, the boss says real loud so the whole floor can hear him killing himself and something about that reminds Pablo of his dream, how the boss can’t help what he’s doing just like the little black frogs couldn’t help what they were doing.
Then the boss is off speaker and asks Pablo to please close the door and sit down.
Maybe I’ll say something this time.
When he gets back to the boss’ desk, Pablo sees a little black frog’s head in the boss’s eyeball and another one in the boss’s other eyeball like two frogs in two little ponds and then Pablo imagines the boss’s head is a big pond full of little black frogs trying to jump out. He shakes his head to make the crazy things go away but then there are frogs poking out between the hairs thick as thorns in the boss’s ears and still more out of his eyeballs and out of his nostrils too. The pressure is awful. He has to do it.
Uncome, uncome, uncome, Pablo shouts at the top of his lungs.
It works. The frogs are gone again.
As Pablo is trying to explain his weird behavior without mentioning frogs, the boss holds his hand up and says he should take a few days off or better a week and Pablo figures he should go see his Grandma right away because she raised him and he can talk to her about anything.
What Pablo doesn’t count on is his Grandma’s new boyfriend being there under the blankets with her in the living room sofa bed so full of life and laughing like a horse at everything. It’s already past ten in morning and they are just now getting up.
Pablo used his keys to open the door locks to let himself in and this would be the last time he would ever do that because he figures those two could be doing it anywhere at any hour of the day and he doesn’t know why they are sleeping in the living room anyway. That used to be his bed.
The big, loud boyfriend must have heard the last bolt lock thud back just in time to roll off his little Grandma and be laying with his big shiny red head sunk into a colored throw pillow laughing at Pablo’s blushing face, soaked hair and white shirt plastered to his skin from being caught in a downpour because he’d been afraid to take the subway uptown on account of the possibility of frogs. He didn’t feel like going through that underground.
The big boyfriend likes Pablo a lot and expresses his feelings by always trying to take him out to eat and by calling him annoying, affectionate names and laughing laughs that could come from a horse, sure.
You look like a little drowned dog, Charlie.
Pablo isn’t sure about this new boyfriend.
When the boyfriend’s laughter subsides into a low growl, Pablo hears kids at recess playing in the playground of PS 30 across the street where he went to school and was always the shortest in his class. All these feelings come up, like his past is being stomped on by a bully all the way to here.
We’re going out to breakfast at the corner diner when the rain stops. Wanna come, Captain?
It stopped already.
Okay. We’ll meet you but first we got some unfinished business to take care of here. Right, Baby?
His Grandma, who is even littler than Pablo, looks like a pile of kindling sticks compared to this huge log of a new boyfriend who is laughing like a horse again at Pablo’s red face. The guy totally enjoys life, food and his Grandma but the whole thing makes Pablo feel the possibility of frogs again, the pressure, so he wants to get the heck out of there before frogs can happen to the person he loves most in the world.
We won’t be long, Chico, says his Grandma. You go order yourself some fresh squeezed OJ and we’ll be down there soon.
How come you’re not at work? she asks.
But Pablo is almost out the door. Whew.
Now that he has no job, maybe, or Grandma to go to, Pablo decides to do what he usually did when he felt mixed up as a boy; wander around in abandoned places because something good or interesting or not that bad would always happen there to at least change his mood. Just kicking through leaves or chucking rocks seems good enough to him.
There are plenty of abandoned places in the old neighborhood: Shadowy construction sites where the work stopped on account of the area going downhill fast and the underneaths of concrete bridges void of derelicts hopefully, empty lots, burnt out buildings, old warehouses without squatters, a closed down high school, the old mansion behind a beautiful stone wall and wrought iron gate rusted and chained shut, but the place is a wreck inside, charred by campfires and graffitied and looted, small stands of trees where people dump washing machines and tires and blue plastic shopping bags hang like party decorations from the trees, a graveyard so old all the people who might visit the graves are dead too, the banks of a no-name, no-account city river barely flowing over rocks and shopping carts, the water so dirty you couldn’t expect anything to live in it but there are always fish if you look close, mainly two swimming in slow love circles, gray as the water is.
Nothing could be weirder than these places, not even frogs. In fact, frogs would fit right in.
This time Pablo goes a way he doesn’t remember going before, up toward the better neighborhoods, instead of down to where all the ripe abandoned places sit like they’ve thrown away as spoiled by the rich people living above. He doesn’t want to relive his past anymore. He doesn’t want to relive anything. He wants to forget everything.
He walks past the line of houses on his Grandma’s block and the next block and the next and then past a strange sight, a chain-link-fenced city storage yard full of other rolled up chain-link fences stacked three high like fat logs. Wow. This is one big mama fenced-in yard ready to give birth to a litter of fences long enough to surround the entire city. A whole fenced-in block of fences. And nobody.
Pablo’s first instinct is to climb the fence to get in the yard and climb the stack of rolled fences to see how tight they are and springy. They look springy.
No way. What am I, eleven again?
Pablo was always a speedy fence climber. He had to be on account of the kids who couldn’t beat anyone else up wanting to beat little him up. But none of these loser freaks could ever catch him in the school yard or wherever. Pablo would always scoot away and be over any fence in five seconds, leaving them standing there like they were suddenly lost in space.
Being a grown up now, with a job maybe, he walks past all those fenced-in fences, trying to feel all right about it. Soon things get a lot quieter. There are more and more trees blocking the machine noises of the city and up ahead more trees and another fence to keep people out of the golf course without paying. He doesn’t feel like climbing this fence either, on account of the insane golfers, who braved the morning rains, being inside there like gorillas in the zoo ready to come after him for trespassing. Better to keep a fence between him and them so he walks along it letting his fingers bump over the cold curves of the links, laughing to himself about gorilla golfers. He’s beginning to feel a little better.
It doesn’t seem to Pablo anymore that his suicidal boss or his Grandma’s laughing, screwed up boyfriend have the right to say anything about him. And if there are frogs, let there be frogs. He can handle them. He tries to make them come now on purpose but he can’t.
The ground slants away from the fence so he has to hold on sometimes, what with how wet the grass still is. It isn’t much fun walking like this.
The smell of the wet rotting leaves and the red sleeping bag splayed out against the fence remind him of the blue dead guy he found sitting in a ditch like it was a bathtub or his own grave the blue dead guy didn’t have time to finish digging.
Coming up slowly and stopping, Pablo talked to him.
And waited to see if he would answer. And in Pablo’s mind it went: If he’s drunk or in a bad mood, the guy could decide to answer or not; or if he’s asleep he could decide to answer or not; or if he’s dead he could decide to answer or not. Like all states were the same state, like the dead could decide to answer or not, same as anyone, and since Pablo was always nice, maybe this one would decide to talk to him, special. Being fast, Pablo wasn’t afraid of a guy in that kind of shape. And he waited, hoping to have a conversation with a dead man, looking at his blue face, fat lips and mouth hanging open. Nothing.
Nobody alive’s that blue, Pablo thought and got the cops, a good deed that was mentioned in church on Sunday. Because he was short, people were complimentary to him when he merely acted his age. It made him sick. A few other short guys he knew lifted weights to get people to quit that but Pablo hated lifting weights. He took up congas and photography.
Pablo reaches the corner of the golf fence, looks down and sees something unbelievable to him, an expanse of grass stretching out below, with three or four soccer fields and a game happening on one. That such a place exists is not unbelievable but that he never knew about it so close to his neighborhood is unbelievable. Maybe it’s just that rich people know how to hide things. Shhh.
The clouds are coming apart and the clean sun pouring down making the wet field so bright it hurts his eyes to look at it. It looks like a big beautiful bowl of green filled with sunlight, like if you drank it, it would be healthy and sweet.
Pablo charges down before he even knows he’s doing it, letting the hill take him as the cool air divides pleasantly over his face. He walks toward the soccer game which is being played by high school girls in Catholic School uniforms, white shirts and short blue skirts with gym shorts underneath so no one can see anything.
Because he loves soccer, Pablo walks up to watch from the sidelines where he gets himself eyed by the gym teacher with the whistle in her mouth. He waves to her to let her know that, even though he’s a grown man watching Catholic School girls in short skirts play soccer at a time of day when regular people are at work, he’s no pervert and harmless. But the gym teacher doesn’t wave back. Probably he isn’t welcome.
It isn’t really soccer anyway. The girls are using only half the field and a player will only move when the ball comes close and the whistle is blown at her. Otherwise the girls just stand around talking, putting their hair back in place from the time the teacher made them chase the ball before. Pablo’s presence has no effect on their disinterest. He never has much effect on girls.
But Pablo doesn’t leave because hidden in the middle of the hair-touching, can’t-be-bothered girls is a scooty, little girl darting all over the place, avoiding the other girls’ kicks like they are wearing work boots and stealing the ball from them before the teacher blows the whistle at her and makes her give it back and stay playing defense. What a gyp. She is so good Pablo wants to see her dribble around the girl-posts to the goal posts. But the teacher, who has given up on trying to teach the hopeless girls about soccer, given up on language altogether maybe, blows her whistle and makes the girl give the ball back and won’t let her score one time. The other girls, when they get their pockets picked, look at their nails or puff their hair like cats lick themselves after a fall to pretend it didn’t happen. They couldn’t care less.
Pablo digs it so much he can’t help yelling out ‘Yes’ a few times which maybe is what inspires the girl to disobey the whistle and dart around the girl-posts like they are standing still, and they are, breaking loose to dart and ziggle and wiggle and score. This marks the end of the game. The teacher makes the little girl fetch the ball from where it wound up because the goal has no net while the other girls line up, slow as cows, to go back into the distant school which looks like it belongs in Europe, half castle, half cathedral, up on its hill.
That was great, Pablo thinks. The way she went and scored anyway. To heck with people who don’t care.
And he is feeling almost all the way better now.
The little girl isn’t feeling so good though and Pablo isn’t either when he sees, as she gets in the line, the other girls surround her and start shoving her back and forth, jarring her brains, and then they throw her down and kick mud on her, while the whistle teacher walks ahead oblivious.
Pablo turns and walks back the way he came, looking down at his slow feet like this day will be a very long day. Maybe his Grandma’s boyfriend will be gone by now and she will be sitting there at the diner, as breakfast becomes lunch, sipping coffee, waiting for Pablo. Or maybe he should go back to his apartment and practice drums. Less neighbors to complain during the day. Plus he has to figure a way to get his job back. Those stupid frogs. Maybe he’s crazy.
He is almost to the hill ready to climb to the golf course fence when the scooty soccer girl speeds up from behind breathing so hard all she can do is cough out Hi.
She’s a mess with grit and grass stuck in the curls of her hair and her white shirt and neck splattered with mud and her face streaked with stains like a dirty-snow car, from what the others girls did to her or from crying or both. Then she takes her skinny arm and wipes it under her nose just in case. The soccer ball stands out, egg white against her blue skirt, under her other arm.
Pablo sees that the gym teacher and whole line of girls are nowhere in sight. They have already disappeared into the castle/cathedral on the hill.
What’re you doing? You better go back to school.
I hate that place.
What? Pablo says for no reason.
It sucks. I just quit.
Is that all you can say?
He doesn’t blame her.
Okay, says the girl and stops. Shrimp.
Pablo starts up the hill to the golf course but doesn’t make it ten feet before he turns and looks down at the mud-spattered girl with the soccer ball under her arm looking up at him with sad, begging eyes like a young dog ever hopeful you won’t kick her again.
He goes back down to her level. The girl is as short as he is but not as brown, more like the morning coffee his Grandma half fills with milk, a real mutt with three or four fathers, springy black curls for hair, blades of grass in it like broken pieces of green light, a nasty red scrape on one cheek, a person life has scuffed up and not just today, you could tell but it doesn’t add up since she’s going to an expensive castle school.
Here, she says, hands him the ball and smiles a wrap around grin she then wets up with her tongue.
Now he feels tricked. Three strikes. Stopping. Going back down. Letting her hand him the ball. He gives it back.
How old are you?
I saw you watching me. I thought you liked soccer, she says and punts the ball high and far onto the green field where it stops and sits like the blind eyeball of the world. Take me with you.
Listen, your parents must pay a lot of money for you to go to that school.
You should feel lucky to go. I would.
We have no boys so all they think about is boys.
What grade are you in?
Better go back and finish tenth grade, girl. I got to get back to work.
Before Pablo can turn to go back to his probably non-existent job, the castle/cathedral bell starts ringing out noon, so deep and dark he must stand still in it, like the underworld is taking a picture of the bright world. Even from far away across the field, the bell sounds up into his body and opens his head to the fullness of the sky and he realizes that he has heard this bell at noon many times before over the years and it is tearing time open now: Pablo feels he is standing still like he has always been standing still and will always be standing still in his neighborhood, broken down but not far from a castle, eyes closed, emptying and being filled. For the first time, maybe, he is lined up with himself in time. Strange that it should happen on a day that sucked so bad.
The ringing goes slow and Pablo knows in his bones just when it will end and his head will close to the sky and the veil will go back down.
It doesn’t get that far because the girl has taken the opportunity of Pablo standing there with his eyes closed to start kissing him on his mouth like he’s a water fountain in a public park. He doesn’t recognize it for what it is at first but then, when he does, lets it go on in that suspension of time, until she slides her tongue in his mouth and he thinks, frog. Her tongue is a black frog moving its wet life in and out of my mouth. Wow. All that kind of thing you can’t do anything about but be scared. But it’s okay now, he can stand it, even if it is a frog, it doesn’t feel bad and you must let there be frogs sometimes, but when the ringing is over the kissing is over and they are standing there like the two strangers they are.
Pablo looks up and sees a big-bellied cop running toward them about halfway across the field already, his badge burning a sun hole on his chest, and because he doesn’t know what the cop could see, he takes off up the hill leaving that strange girl without a word.
He’s so fast, he knows the fat cop will never catch him. Pablo has always been a real fast runner.