SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
September 21, 2014

Frogs From Midgets

 

Morgan’s sleek black cat, Bert, settled in on the floor next to me and I started scritching his head. “Hello little cat, sitting there amongst the boxes,” I began in a variation on an old fake beatnik poem. “I have no mute for you today.”

            “Mute?” Morgan asked.

            “Mute?” I repeated, suddenly realizing what I’d just said. “What the fuck was that? I meant ‘food.’”

            “Oh, Jim’s getting the aphasia.”

            “Yeah, it’s not like you’d be able to tell the difference.”

            Finally understanding that he wasn’t going to be fed again any time soon, Bert stood and moved off to another room to wait, and Morgan and I resumed unpacking.

            I unfolded the rusty pocket knife I’d been using and sliced open the lid of the next box. Crammed haphazardly inside was a collection of ephemera, much of which should probably have been jettisoned before the move to the new place. There was a bunch of Residents memorabilia, some dusty old “Slackjaw” coasters and matchbooks, small busts of Lenin, Wagner, and Poe, an eight-inch-tall sculpture by George Higham which he called the Fetus de Milo, and a dancing clown jewelry box which has always scared the shit out of me (it plays “Send in the Clowns” when you wind it up). Then there was the ceramic frog.

            To put it simply, the ceramic frog is a hideous thing, about five inches tall, glazed with smears of green and black, with great bulbous eyes, misshapen warts, and a gaping cave of a mouth leading to a hollow interior. I guess the idea is that you’re supposed to keep things in there. I stuck my finger inside and, as expected, found the black rubber vampire bat that’s been curled up inside the frog since I was in high school. That it’s so fucking ugly is only part of the reason I’ve kept the damn thing with me since I was fourteen, and it’s not even the most important reason.

            One day back in 1979, for no reason I can fully grasp, my parents presented me with the frog. It was no big deal—they just put it on the table in front of me and said, “here, we thought you might like this.”

            Well, I didn’t of course. What the hell was I supposed to do with some hollow abominable frog? It looked like something they picked up for a dime at a garage sale. Someone’s kid probably made it in arts and crafts at a special school.

            Not quite, but close. They told me they’d bought it from a married couple in their bowling league who made a living by molding, firing, and selling awful ceramic frogs. My parents wanted to help them out and so bought one, then gave it to me. I still wasn’t convinced and was already plotting to leave it somewhere far away in the days to come. Then my dad had to go and ruin all my devious plans.

            “They’re midgets,” he said. “Husband and wife midgets who live over on the West Side. Their whole house has been scaled down to their size—the counters, the doorknobs, the furniture, everything. And this is what they do.”

            Well that changed everything. It was no longer simply an ugly fucking purposeless frog that just takes up space. It was an ugly fucking purposeless frog that just takes up space that was made by MIDGETS.

            From that instant onward I cherished the damn thing. Not sure why I stuffed the rubber bat in its mouth when I was in high school, but I’m sure it made sense at the time so I left it there. To date it’s moved with me to ten different apartments and I’ve always kept it within view wherever I’ve been. And whenever I saw it I thought, “that ugly fucking frog was made by midgets!,” a thought which always lightened my mood.

            A few Sundays back while still packing up Morgan’s place, we were listening to NPR (her choice, not mine) when one of those endlessly aggravating contemporary storytelling programs came on. Among the typical stories about dying parents and bad relationships, some comfortable and satisfied young woman came on and told the story of an awful Christmas present. She was very young, and her parents were in a tough economic position when Christmas rolled around. The girl, not understanding this, had big dreams and expected lots of extravagant toys. But on Christmas morning, see, she and her older sister found they only had one present each, and it was the same thing. Tearing off the paper, the girl stared down at the black wooden box decorated with hand-painted yellow flowers, and began wailing. When her sister told her the box had been painted by a trained monkey, that changed everything. She suddenly loved the box and kept it with her into adulthood, telling everyone it had been painted by a monkey.

            Only many years later did she learn that of course the box hadn’t been painted by monkeys (they simply don’t have the manual dexterity)—it had been painted by a friend of her parents, who made a hobby of creating really ugly wooden boxes. Her sister had only told that “monkey” story to shut her up. So in the end it was a heartwarming tale of how a quick-thinking older sibling saved Christmas and her destitute parents’ feelings by lying to a spoiled little brat who was flipping out.

            When I heard that story I immediately thought of my awful ceramic frog made by midgets, and began wondering. After all, I’d only learned a few years ago that all the stories I’d been told about my grandfather were standard urban legends. I mean, making a living by selling hideous ceramic frogs? How much could that conceivably pull in every year? How many would you have to sell to even crack the poverty line, and how many years could you pull that off once you’d hit up all the neighbors and everyone on your bowling team? And what was that business about midgets in their bowling league anyway? Why hadn’t they ever mentioned them before? How would that work, exactly? Did they use regulation balls?

            In a flash everything seemed too unlikely. Much more plausible was the idea that someone had given my folks this ugly fucking frog and they wanted to get rid of it without hurting anyone’s feelings. I was a handy target, and they knew full well that if they gave it to me with some kind of cockamamie midget story I’d be hooked, and they were right.

            For thirty-five years I’d kept that thing with me based, in all likelihood, on a cheap lie they probably laughed and laughed about later (“Oh, that son of ours and his midgets!”).

            I considered the horrible thing in my hands one last time, considered and then reconsidered extracting the bat (and the wedding ring from my first marriage, which I’d dumped in there as well). Then I stuffed it in the big garbage bag with the rest of the detritus I’d be dragging out to the curb later. One of these days I’ll ask my mom about it, and if it turns out it really was made by midget bowlers, well, then I’ll have something else to blame on NPR.

 

You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.