ALL-U-CAN-EAT

Anne Panning

It all started when my sister Stella tried to convince me that frog legs would be the next big American food craze. “Trust me,” she said—she, an animal enthusiast to such an extreme that her freezer had become a pet morgue. “I predict that frog legs,” she said, hands on her hips, “will be to 2000 what sun-dried tomatoes were to the eighties! They’ll be to western New York what coffee shops were to Seattle! Like sushi in shopping malls. Think about it.” She paused to scratch her elbow; she was forever itching with rashes, bug bites, pet hair. “Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mickey D’s ends up carrying them on their menu. McFrog Legs Happy Meals. What kid wouldn’t go crazy for that?”

“Umm, this kid wouldn’t,” I said, pointing to myself, though I was no kid. Stella—in addition to being thrice divorced, an alcoholic, a liar, and extremely persuasive—was broke. She worked as the cafeteria manager at our town’s elementary school, but blew most of her wages on lotto tickets, pet food, and bad luck business enterprises, in that order. She often got so excited about her current money-making scheme (most recently: Native American beaded jewelry made in your own home!) that she’d come driving over in her cafeteria whites, plastic food service gloves still covering her sweaty hands. She was as predictable as most con artists, though: no matter what she said, she wanted money, money, money. Unfortunately for me, her “enthusiasms” often rubbed off on my husband, Kenner, and it was all I could do to keep them both under control.

I was—in addition to being hard-working, frugal, a little high-strung, and extremely wary of Stella—flush with cash. When I tell them why, most people are surprised I got such a nice settlement from my lawsuit. The short version is this: about a year and a half ago, I was going about my business as a dutiful letter carrier in a pretty crummy neighborhood when a pit bull attacked me. The thing had been after me for days. I’d warned the owners in one of our special dog warning letters slipped into their box. It threatened “the cessation of U.S. postal delivery” if they did not take care to “confine” their dog. But I, being how I am—did I forget to mention “pushover” as one of my traits?—gave them one last chance. It was Christmastime, after all. And I had a nice package to deliver for them. But. That’s where I made my big mistake.

Part of my right foot is now missing. I still walk with a limp and rely on a cane. When the weather gets cold, I’m often in serious pain. Need I say more? But Stella—though she expressed sympathy and concern, brought me magazines and doughnuts, loaned me her VCR and a bunch of stupid movies—has been burning to get her hands on my money ever since. She’s a money grubber with grubby little paws; she is! She’s a conniving little animal herself (a squirrel? perhaps a rat?), which is what makes her predilection for animal enterprises—in this case, frog legs—so funny. Or should I say ironic?

Despite my refusal, she kept at me for weeks. “We’ll have Kenner farm the frogs, then you and I’ll serve them up at the restaurant.” We were hanging out in my driveway on a humid night in early July. I leaned against her truck, and she sat in my small, scrappy yard.

“What restaurant?” I asked. I had to wear a special shoe on my right foot that made me look like a disabled toddler. It was white with Velcro straps that got grass-stained and crusty all summer long.

“The one we’re gonna open!” she said. She ripped clumps of my lawn out by the fistful, then threw them over her shoulder. “God, Faye, how many times do I have to go over this with you!”

Sometimes she could honestly make me think I’d forgotten something important. She tried to claim I’d become forgetful after the pit bull incident, but the fact was we had never discussed opening any restaurant, and I told her that.

“Bingo!” she said, and pointed at me like I’d said exactly the right thing. Her hair was cut short and boxy just like my husband, Kenner’s, and she looked like a man in a white button-up and jeans.

“Bingo what?”

“Bingo to the restaurant we’re going to open.” She took a swig of her beer after toasting me, although I had no drink in hand. “We’ll call it Chez Menagerie, get it? Because we’ll serve all kinds of exotic animals. Frog legs’ll be just the beginning.”

I snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“We’ll serve ostrich, of course,” she said. “Buffalo burgers. Octopus. Stuff like that.” She hoisted herself up on all fours to get to a standing position.

“Stella, I am not giving you one cent of my money,” I said. A mosquito drilled into my leg and I smashed it, felt blood sticky against my skin. “You know I’m saving it for—”

“For what?” she interrupted, rude, loud, and smug. She stretched her hands above her head, and looked bored.

“For Kenner’s and my retirement,” I said. “I’ve told you a million times! We’re going out with a bang! Cruises, winters in Florida, Winnebago.” I tried to get her to look me in the eye to see that I was serious, but she was twisting around, trying to crack her back. “Anyway, I think I’ve earned it.” Kenner and I had no kids. We both worked for the United States Postal Service, though I had been assigned to “light duty” after the accident. I now spent most of my days looking up addresses for expired forwards and answering the phone for zip code requests. I missed my route, though, and especially the people. One little old lady had me change her lightbulbs and fetch food from her freezer in the basement. A blind man who lived in a collapsing pink house asked me how to run his VCR. You ran into all kinds of odd requests as a letter carrier, and I missed the surprises. I also missed driving my little white truck all over town and waving to everyone.

Stella hung her thumbs in her belt loops like a guy. Her face was dark purple from the stretching. I could see her eyes squinch up in a way that scared me. Then she laid into me. “You think just because a pit bull attacked you, you’re better than everyone else.” She was so worked up she was out of breath.

“Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I think.” I gripped the bed of the pickup instead of her neck.

“That is what you think,” Stella said. “People who have accidents are always acting like victims.” She fake-hobbled around the truck with an imaginary cane. ” ‘Oh, poor me! My poor leg! I have it so rough! Waaa!'”

When Stella got like this, I had to make a fast exit or things could get ugly. We’d been known to fistfight or wrestle when we were younger, if driven to it. I was almost getting driven to it now. Bigger than me, Stella usually won and would sit on top of me, her big butt bouncing up and down on my stomach, making me want to puke.

Just then Kenner drove up on his motorcycle. He’d removed the mufflers, and the noise his bike made ripped down the street like machine-gun fire. Dogs tested their chains. Neighbors came running out their front doors, pissed off. Someone yelled, “Not in this neighborhood!” though we were not exactly a high-end block of real estate. He parked it at a jaunty angle right beside us. The engine ticked as it cooled. Its chrome shined bright in the dying day-end light.

“How we doing, ladies?” Kenner got off the bike and popped the helmet off his head like an astronaut. He held it cupped against his side as if it were toting a toddler. “Babe,” he said, and kissed me. I saw him raise his eyebrows at Stella in a way that made me feel left out.

“Did you tell her?” he asked. He put the helmet down and crouched on his haunches. I could see his crack and the striped band of his underwear. “Ribbit, ribbit.” He stuck his tongue out but looked like a snake, not a frog. I kicked him in the butt with my gimp foot, which probably hurt me more than him.

“You guys are crazy,” I said. “Nobody’s gonna eat frog legs in this town.” I wanted to get inside. I was hungry, thirsty, and cranky. It was a good TV night, and I longed to stretch out in front of its glow. “Are you guys under the illusion that this is Paris or something?” I headed for the back door, which, for me, took considerable effort. “I’m sorry, but the last time I ate out in Rathburg, I was seeing a lot of burgers and fries. Am I right or am I right?”

“You’re wrong,” they both said in unison.

“Jinx!” Kenner said, and clipped her on the arm. Then they giggled, or at least Stella did in her high-pitched, teeth-grinding way. I went inside, stewing. They could both be so stupid, I thought. Frog legs and buffalo burgers and octopus, in our little town? As if.

In bed that night, Kenner revealed to me that he’d already spent $6,000 of my $50,000 settlement: $5,000 to Stella, to help with a down payment on Chez Menagerie (formerly the old VFW club next to the bowling alley), and $1,000 to Bud “Jupiter” McCombs from Willacoochee, Georgia, the cost of his “Frog Legs: An Informational Video & Starter Kit for the Adventurous Entrepreneur,” which I’d discovered only because he accidentally left the receipt on our dresser one morning. You’d think the check to Stella would have burned me worse than the frog leg kit, but it was oddly the latter that got my goat. The fact that Kenner had blown a thousand dollars of my money on something so incredibly stupid was more than I could bear. I had my limits. The money, after all, was mine, and since I was the one who’d suffered the injury, I wasn’t about to let him squander my stash on another one of Stella’s half-assed, get-rich-quick schemes that always, and I mean always, ended badly. How many examples I could pull out of a hat in case he’d forgotten! Tie-dye T-shirts to sell at our town’s Noodle Days celebration had put her in the red. Buffalo Bills aprons, hats, teddy bears, pot holders, and bibs had never quite found their market (I still had a couple stained pot holders in the kitchen). Probably her biggest flub was trying to sell de-veined filet mignons (from Omaha!) door to door. Her freezer (and mine) had overflowed with them faster than she could move them, and they’d rotted, stinky and brown, on her back porch: another couple grand she didn’t have, down the toilet.

“Kenner,” I said. We usually slept naked, but tonight I punished him by wearing my stiff cotton pajamas with pigs on them. “I thought you’d be smarter than this! You should know by now that Stella’s got about as much business sense as a plate of mashed potatoes.” I scrunched up the covers, punched back my pillows. Our two cats, Harley and Davis, got scared by my sudden movements, and leapt off the bed in tandem like synchronized swimmers.

“This time I think she might be onto something,” he said. He was propped up on one elbow, and I could see the puff of his dark armpit hair. I could also smell the raw onions from dinner on his breath. “Is it so wrong to want to reach for your dreams? If you don’t take a chance, you’ll never know what might have been.”

Was he reciting from an inspirational greeting card? It sounded like. “Why do I feel as if I have absolutely no say in this when it’s my money that’s at stake here?” I watched Kenner reach for a cigarette, steady it between his lips, and light it. I hated when he smoked in bed.

“It’s about trust,” he said through a scrim of smoke. He folded one arm behind his head, gesticulated with the other. “I mean, I can understand your lack of trust after the pit bull thing, but this is me here!” he said. He thumped on his chest with his thumb. “And your sister. I mean, come on. We’re all kin.”

“Nobody says ‘kin’ anymore,” I said. “Plus, you’re not kin.”

“You know what I mean,” he said. “Don’t overanalyze.” He tapped my hand. “Just think of it as an investment. We could double, triple, even quadruple our money, then retire early once the thing takes off. Think about it!”

I turned out the light, though he was still smoking. “I hereby banish you from the checkbook,” I said. “You don’t touch it until I say so.” I waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. I turned away from him, and watched the shadow of headlights arc across the wall, the ceiling, the comforter, then hit me in the eyes.

Finally, he settled in behind me, gathering himself against my butt, cupping his knees behind mine. “Tomorrow night me and Stella are going to the Bergen swamp to scope out some bullfrogs,” he whispered. His voice was smoky and soft. “You should come.” He grabbed me around the waist, let his hand rest on my curved flank. “Come,” he said. “It’ll be fun.”

“We’ll see,” I said.

The next night, the three of us headed out after dark, a friend’s borrowed boat roped to the top of Stella’s car. As we turned off onto Old Orchard Road, families of bats swooped away from our headlights. Fallen branches snapped under our tires. I didn’t get out when we parked, but sat listening to Kenner and Stella grunting and huffing as they untied the boat from the roof. Kenner was educating Stella about amphibian reproduction. In July, Kenner claimed, the frogs were screwing like crazy and making tadpoles left and right. “They’ll be lazy and sluggish and tired after all that sex,” Kenner claimed. “Should be easy targets.”

“And since when are you such an expert on frog behavior?” I said from inside the car.

“Three words.” He leaned into my window. “Bud ‘Jupiter’ McCombs. Best money I ever spent.”

I did get out of the car after that, ready to strangle him, but I couldn’t see my own hand in front of me and got scared. Plus, I hadn’t brought my cane and didn’t feel entirely steady on my feet. “What goes around, comes around,” I said, unsure what I meant.

“Exactly,” Kenner said.

“Touché,” Stella said. As a sister, she could be such a traitor.

Stella carried two spears, a filet knife, a bunch of plastic bags, and a bottle of red wine. I carried two yellow flashlights, big as bricks and just as heavy. Kenner, somehow, bumped the boat along behind us.

We put in at the soupy eastern end of the swamp; the spongy ground pooled up around my ankles. I was sure snakes were weaving their way between my legs; in fact, I cried out when I felt a slick wetness against my calf, but it was only a string of algae slime. Kenner took control of the flashlights while he let us “ladies” get situated in the rickety boat. I kept feeling invisible things brushing against my face and hair, but when I swatted, I grabbed only air.

The boat was a small shallow triangle painted camouflage and smelled like cat pee. “I call front!” Stella said, and clambered her way to the bow, almost toppling us both into the water. I sat in the middle seat, Kenner in the stern. It was just after dusk, and the tight thicket of trees and mossy overhang completely obliterated the weak glow of a half moon. I was put in charge of the flashlights, and held one in either hand, training the beams right at water level as we headed out into the unknown. Instantly, dozens, hundreds, thousands of eyes skimmed the surface. It was a pond full of eyes! Round blinking bubbles of eyes. “Look it there!” I said. “And there!” My flashlight beams grew erratic as my heart rate rose.

“Shh!” Stella said. “You’ll scare them. Stay focused.” She was leaning way over the boat, spear poised in the air above the water. Kenner was in charge of operating the oars, which groaned on rusty stirrups. We slid through the water, nocturnal hunters and explorers, traveling through thick bands of gnats. I could feel them on my tongue and told Kenner we could get poisoned. I had read certain gnats in upstate New York were poisonous. I couldn’t remember where I’d read it.

“Just keep your mouth closed,” Kenner said.

“Then they go in my nose!” I was swatting and trying to breathe without inhaling gnats when I dropped one of the flashlights in the water. It sank.

“Way to go,” Stella said. “I was just zeroing in on one!” She sat back in the boat and made waves with her angry movements. I held on, rocking.

“This is crazy,” I said. I turned to Kenner. “Didn’t they show you any better tricks of the trade on your frog video?” An owl hooted above us, and sounded like it was booing. “I mean, I would think a thousand bucks would get you a whole case of frog legs, not to mention some how-to.”

“Well, here’s a little known fact,” Kenner said. He sat back, placed the oars inside the boat, and unscrewed the bottle of red. “If you don’t feed frogs right, I mean if they’re really hungry?” He took a sip, passed it to me. I drank, passed it to Stella, but she was busy taking aim at one of the frogs. “So I was saying,” Kenner kept monologuing, “if they’re really hungry, they resort to cannibalism. That’s one thing McCombs says can be a real problem. Cannibalism. It reduces the harvestable population.” Kenner said it as if he were reading out of a brochure.

“Hey, I got one!” Stella said. She rocked the boat a bit getting it inside, but indeed, there was a big gray-bellied bullfrog impaled through the throat. It lay there, gasping, its eyes roving, a desperate little man. “Amazing how easy it is,” Stella said. “You can almost reach right in and grab them.” She pulled the spear out of it and started going for another.

“You have to put it out of its misery!” I said. “You can’t just let it suffer like that.” I petted its slimy head, and its eyes met mine, pleading for help. “This is torture.”

“You do it,” Stella said. “Use your flashlight. Give it a clunk.” Again, she dangled over the side of the boat, spear in hand. “Just make sure to smash it over the head without ruining the legs. Remember, this is about frog legs.”

I stared at the little guy caught like a common criminal in my flashlight beam.

“Hey, Faye,” Kenner said. “It’s OK. I’ll do it.” When it came right down to it, Kenner knew me. He knew I could not kill a frog. I turned away but heard the ugly sound of plastic on cartilage. The rest of the frogs in the swamp seemed to croak loudly and mournfully at the loss of one of their own. “It’s OK,” Kenner said. “It’s all right.” He rubbed my sweaty arm and for a second I felt comforted. “Just try to think of it like cows. We kill cows and eat them without a thought. This is the same thing.”

“Got another one!” Stella said, and slid it off the spear like a cooked kebab. “I think I’m getting the hang of this.” Kenner took the flashlight from me and took this one out of its misery, too. I turned away.

We slid quietly through the dark, spearing, whacking, killing, frog after frog. I sat in the middle seat, sorry I’d come. I missed the Kenner I’d married twenty years ago who used to wash up on Friday nights and take me to the movies. Back then, we wanted the same things: a little money saved for a rainy day, a decent car, a small house, and a few trips here and there to America’s landmarks. We still hadn’t made it to the Badlands, not to mention Yellowstone, Disney World, or the Jersey shore. Somewhere along the way, Kenner seemed to have drifted into the Harley set, leaving me, I guess you could say, in the dust. All I wanted was what we used to want: to be together, doing nothing much at all, but always seeing the future as a bright place, full of possibility. I didn’t even need to go on the trips so much as I wanted to feel aligned with Kenner again, like uniformed soldiers, fighting for the same cause.

After work the next day, we kicked back whiskey-Cokes and fired up the grill at Stella’s house. Kenner’s theory was that more people would go for frog legs if they were barbecued like any other meat, whereas Stella argued that a breaded, fried version with lemon and garlic would so mask the shape and taste of frog that people would gobble them up with abandon, then be able to say, “Hey, I ate frog legs.” They were both attempting to test their versions on each other before deciding which one the restaurant should serve. I thought people in our town would rather eat a whole plate of ketchup before they’d eat frog legs, but decided that if I wanted to be on the same side as Kenner again, I should at least play along with the whole venture—even if I did think it was ridiculous.

Stella poured about an inch of oil into a deep cast-iron skillet. She stood back, watching it warm up. “My thinking is that if you fry the hell out of it, people will eat almost anything, right? I mean, chicken wings? Give me a break.” She finished her drink fast, the ice cubes knocking against her teeth. “Fix me another?” she asked. Granted, I was just sitting there at her very 1970s breakfast bar leafing through a Ladies Plus catalog, but still. I scowled at her, but stomped to the fridge.

Growing up, she had always resented me for being tiny and trim whereas she was tall and husky. Not only that, but she was a tomboy gone to seed. She played basketball and got thrown out of every single game for fouling. She was a regular pot smoker by age twelve. At sixteen she totaled my parents’ Honda and walked away without a scratch. Still, she somehow managed to win their favor over me, their sweet, reliable, goody-goody daughter. “Stella’s spunk,” my father, a high-school shop teacher, would say, “will take her far. You just watch her go.” As for me, my good grades were hastily magneted to the refrigerator, then soon fell down and were replaced by supermarket fliers, court summonses for Stella, photos of our dog, Derek, a blind spaniel Stella had found at the dump and adopted as our family pet.

I could hear Kenner outside hacking the legs off the frogs. He’d wanted to do it at the sink, but I’d insisted it was not an indoor enterprise. I also told him to skin them out there and only bring in the little legs and drummies when they looked like any other meat. It was all I could stomach. But I was glad for the time alone with Stella, who drank her whiskey-Cokes as if they were water. She’d taken to drinking hard liquor the past few years, and I could see it taking its toll. Spider veins covered her cheeks, and her face had grown swollen and splotchy in a way that read alcoholism. Kenner disagreed with me, though, and told me I was always looking for problems when it came to Stella.

She persuaded me to mix up a little beer batter with chives since I was obviously idle. She pointed me over to the flour canister with her elbow, and told me where everything was.

“You know, Stella,” I said, and shook some salt into my palm. I threw it into the batter. “I kind of wish you’d leave Kenner out of these things. You know he’s got a heart of gold. He’d do anything for you. For anyone, for that matter.” I snipped up the chives with a scissors. “But he’s a lotto ticket junkie, just like you! We’re talking about a dreamer here. All he wants is to quit his job and ride his Harley all over hell.”

Her back was to me. She shrugged.

“He’s only doing this because he thinks it’ll make us all filthy rich,” I said. I waited. Nothing. “He wants to blow all my money on this, and then it’ll all go to pot and then what? Huh? You know as well as I do that this thing is never going to catch on.”

She still wouldn’t look at me. I could see the back of her neck muscles flex. I stirred the batter hard, then let it rest.

“Just because you think you’re going to strike it rich,” I said, “doesn’t mean . . . well, can you just leave Kenner alone for once?” There. I’d said it, and was glad I had.

“He came after me first,” she mumbled, her back to me. “It wasn’t like I was thinking: Hey Kenner! Let’s do this!” She spun around then, fast, and caught me off guard. I was starting to get confused.

“That’s not what he told me.” I tried to remember how the whole frog leg fiasco had come up in the first place, but couldn’t recall Kenner’s exact words. “All I know is that Kenner didn’t know the first thing about frog legs until you started talking about them. And now—”

The screen door squeaked open, and Kenner came in with a cookie sheet full of frog legs. Their little calf muscles curled tightly around the bones like sea shells. Long black veins ran down the tendons like embroidery floss. You could see the gray hip joints hacked at the ball. But worst of all, he hadn’t removed the webbed feet. Each little toe stuck together and looked ready to leap.

“Kenner,” I said. “The feet!”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Try not to look.”

“The feet!” I said.

He spread them open between thumb and forefinger.

“You’re barbarian,” I said. “Both of you.”

“No,” Stella said. She dipped a couple legs into my batter and we all stood there, watching them sizzle. “It’s more or less we’re on the same page, me and Kenner, entrepreneurially.”

“That’s not a word,” I said. The frog legs smelled like garlic, nothing else. They popped and sputtered grease. I took a step back.

“Look it up,” she said. “Is too.”

I was tempted to say, “Is not!” but crossed my arms and stewed. She could be such a bully. Besides, I comforted myself, I was the smart one. Back in high school, I was honor roll and salutatorian and voted Most Likely to Succeed, but whenever Stella caught me reminiscing, she’d say, “Faye, let it go. That was over twenty years ago, girlfriend.” I hated when she called me girlfriend. I was not her girlfriend.

When the frog legs were done, we sat down at the table, the platter steaming in front of us. I still didn’t think I’d quite gotten through to Stella, but I trusted Kenner, if not her. For a while, I wondered if they could possibly be having an affair, but I knew Kenner didn’t have it in him to cheat, simply because he was too lazy. Cheating would require him to spend his free time on something other than his bike. Cheating would mean he’d have to make phone calls (he hated talking on the phone) and prior arrangements (he was a “wing it” kind of guy). Plus, there was very little Stella had to offer someone like Kenner except a bossy, know-it-all kind of idiocy. Kenner wouldn’t stand for it. I decided they were simply in business collaboration both with and against me, all in the name of getting my money behind their frog leg business. But they were not getting another cent.

“Ladies?” Kenner said. He got three forks from the drawer, and set them on the table. “Shall we?”

“Ken, they’re really a finger food,” Stella said. She pushed aside the forks.

I wasn’t going to have any, but the two of them were exclaiming and moaning in such delight that I decided to close my eyes and just do it. What disturbed me about them was how lightweight the bones were, as if they weren’t bones at all but airy, birdlike imitations. The fully intact webbed feet didn’t help matters, either.

I chewed, but the meat seemed to bounce against my molars.

“Do you think they taste like chicken?” Kenner said. He rubbed some grease off my chin with his thumb.

“I think they kick ass!” Stella said. She was onto her third one, and I could see the grease had already stained her T-shirt. The T-shirt was tie-dyed and so tight around her bust you could see every seam and lacy bulge of her bra through it.

“Umm, I think he was asking me, not you?” I said. I kicked her under the table, but she kicked back, harder.

“So?” Kenner said. “Pretty righteous, huh?” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Tastes like goddamn chicken fingers.”

“It’s sort of like fat-free chicken,” I said, chewing. I nibbled around the knee joint, and shivered. “Or somehow it’s like fish. And it tastes kind of bitter. A little like algae.”

I needed a big swallow of beer to wash down each bite. What really repulsed me, beyond the milky texture and the webbed feet and thick black veins, was seeing the long, gray discarded bones on the pan. The shape and bend of each leg too clearly suggested frog to me. You could almost imagine them hopping away.

“So are you OK with this?” Stella said. “Are you in?” She sat back and balled up her napkin, then sucked at her teeth and eventually scraped between them with her fingernail.

Kenner looked at me expectantly.

“Meaning what?” I asked.

They exchanged glances, and I felt my heart rate rise. “Meaning we need just a little more money,” Stella said. “Please, please, please! If you’ve ever done anything good in your life, do this! You won’t be sorry! I promise.”

Kenner moved in before I could even say anything. He was obviously on damage control, and tried to placate me while at the same time con me into it. “Babe,” he said in his I’m-really-sweet-and-understanding-soft-man voice. “We just need a couple thousand more for the grand opening.” He lifted my hand off the table, and held it like a fair maiden’s. “Just some odds and ends. Tables and chairs. A steam table for the buffet. Advertising and promo stuff. You know.”

I pushed the frog legs away from under my nose. “First of all, you’ve sunk $6,000 of my money into this whole thing already.” I tapped a finger on the table to make my point. “Without my asking.” I glared at Kenner, who nodded, again, in his I-hear-you-I’m-with-you way. “Second of all, no one is going to want to come and eat freaking frog legs around here! How many times do I have to tell you two that?”

“Why do you always have to be such a downer?” Stella said. She hoisted herself up to get her cigarettes, and stood by the back door, half in, half out, exhaling outside as a courtesy, I knew, to me.

“Let me have one of those,” Kenner said. The two of them stood with the door cracked open, looking in at me, the lonely nonsmoker, at the table.

“Ever since we were kids, you always had to bring up the practical side of shit and poo-poo on everything.” Stella blew smoke inside the house now, as if in revenge. “Whenever Mom or Dad would suggest some kind of vacation to Niagara Falls or Cooperstown, you’d always have to go get the atlas and point out all the problems with it. Or whenever Dad suggested we live a little and splurge on something like a new car or a swimming pool, you’d always band together with Mom and worry about the money. You were worrying about money when you were five years old!” She picked a piece of tobacco off her tongue with her finger.

“It’s easy not to care about money when it’s not yours,” I said. I scraped my chair back, and told them I had to go. “And don’t think I’m going to change my mind like I always do. Because I won’t.” I stormed past the two of them—or stormed as best I could with my “disability,” a term I loathed. Outside, I sat in the car a minute, rolled my window down, and tried to calm myself. I had read somewhere that you should never drive or operate machinery when you were upset.

“Just think about it,” Stella called from the back stairs. “We have to have chairs! Is that asking for so much?”

I pulled out of the driveway, then pulled back in. I hung my arm out the window and pointed at Kenner, who’d just cracked open a beer. “Kenner, get in,” I said. “You’re coming with me.”

He shrugged his shoulders, stubbed out his cigarette, and brought his beer along with him, which I didn’t like, not in the car. I drove us away fast without waving at Stella.

“This is getting out of control,” I said. I liked driving Kenner around our town, and took the long way home. We cruised past the kiddie park, which was clogged with strollers, then down Main Street, past the post office (luckily, we worked the 6-2 shift, great for summer), the movie theater, the comic book shop, and the travel agency with faded cardboard signs in the windows advertising Florida and Hawaii. The signs were ancient, yellowed, and crumbly around the edges. They’d been there ever since I could remember.

“The thing you need to do,” Kenner said, and tucked his beer between his legs, “is see the big picture.” He mimed a picture frame in front of him, and held it up for me to view. “Money down now is an investment for later.” He rested his hands on his scuzzy jeans. “You have to spend money to make money.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’ve heard that somewhere before.”

“Yeah, it’s a saying,” Kenner said, “but it’s true.”

I drove him past the duck pond, a little green pool, foul with duck shit and fetid water. Stay-at-home moms sat with their kids, chucking old bread to the ducks, who gorged themselves like gluttons. I used to take walks near the pond, but now those days were over, due to my gimp foot. I sometimes wondered if Kenner missed the me I used to be before the accident, the me who could run and jump and dance and wear high heels and really kick it; I knew I did. Now I was a person with “special needs,” which I’m sure didn’t do much for my sex appeal.

“Check this out,” Kenner said. He pointed excitedly to the pond. “There’s probably hundreds of frogs in there, right? In fact, when you walk past at night, you can hear them doing their thing.” He tapped his lip, which he did when he was really scheming. “Another source of legs for us that’s even closer to home! McCombs says on the video that the more free sources you can identify, the better profit you can make. We might not have to farm them at all.”

“Don’t you think people would look at us a little funny,” I said, “if we showed up with our spears, right here in town?” I was trying not to be a downer about it, but the idea seemed pretty unrealistic.

“I’ve got to tell Stella,” he said. “She’ll be psyched.”

I tried this time to be more positive. If I didn’t, I might be spending a lot of nights alone while the two of them hunted dark waters together. “I mean,” I started over, “I’m sure there are lots of frogs in there. God, yeah.” I smiled at him as genuinely as I could, then went out a little farther on a limb. “In fact, I could imagine this spot being our little secret. Just you and me. We could walk down here and, you know, make a date out of it. A little adventure.”

“That’d be cool.” He seemed distracted, though, as if he were already hatching a plan to run by Stella. I had to admit I was jealous of not only their like-minded business sense, but of their very mobility, which I was sure they both took completely for granted. Sometimes I felt more like a liability than a helpmate to Kenner, and Stella seemed to fill certain needs of his that I couldn’t.

I drove him by the new dollar store that had opened up on the edge of town. Lots of crappy cars and a few rickety ten-speed bikes were parked out front. The building next door to it had been demolished, and little kids jumped around on the crumbly cement blocks. “So are you and Stella an item now or what?” The idea—however stupid—had been nagging at me for weeks. I signaled left, and sort of chuckled. “Should I be worried my big sister is zeroing in on you?”

“God, no!” He exhibited the proper amount of shock and derision so that I believed him.

“Well, Stella seemed to be hinting at—”

“She wants to piss you off,” Kenner said. He adjusted his train conductor cap, then wiped off the dust build-up on the dash. He definitely preferred to drive, not ride. “She lives to get your goat. You know that.” He seemed genuinely upset by my question. “And come on. Me and Stella? I don’t mean to dis your sister or anything, but she’s not exactly a looker. You know what I’m saying.”

I nodded. “I know what you’re saying.”

I swung us home, down Briar Street. I could see our little blue Cape in the distance. As we got closer, I saw Harley and Davis on the stoop, whining to get in.

“And the money?” Kenner asked sheepishly. “I don’t think you ever said one way or the other.” Our car doors slammed, syncopated. I went for the house.

“Let’s not fight right now,” I said, reaching for the cats. “OK? I’m too tired to fight.”

“OK.” Kenner spanked me on the rear and followed me into the house, whooping.

••

On the last Friday night of August, almost two months after we began hunting frogs, Chez Menagerie was ready to open its doors for its grand opening. Kenner and I had harvested more frogs than we knew what to do with; I’d financed the new chairs, tables, steam table, and menus; the grand opening had been advertised in our town’s newspaper for two weeks, plus we’d put an ad in the city newspaper the week prior. We were all set to open, and Kenner and I sat waiting for Stella to show up.

I had to admit that even I, the “downer,” the “naysayer,” was a little bit excited. I had learned things about frogs from Kenner that I’d never known before. Who knew they preferred their food moving, and that the Japanese had actually invented a vibrating motorized food tray that mimicked live bait? The bullfrog, I’d found out, was the largest North American species, and grew up to a foot long. How any of this mattered was unclear, only Kenner had relayed it all to me with such relish that his enthusiasm and interest had somehow rubbed off on me. Our nighttime frog escapades were doing wonders for our love life. Plus, the more interested in frogs I became, the better Kenner and I got along and the less time we had to spend with Stella. In fact, we’d barely seen her at all the past couple of weeks.

We’d taken to going on long rides after work on his Harley, me clutching his waist from behind, my hair blowing in strings out the bottom of my helmet. I liked it that way since my bad foot was irrelevant and we could both fly down the highway like the old days. We’d search out new frog sites and evaluate their potential for a harvestable population. We’d picnic by little secluded ponds and listen for the familiar croaks. Our lives had started to center around frogs, but instead of disturbing me, I had grown to love the little guys, as well as their legs, fried in butter and smothered with garlic and lemon.

“I’m going to give Stella a call,” Kenner said now. He turned to the black wall phone, but just as he picked up the receiver, she came rushing through the door. It had started to rain outside, hard, and her red, hooded sweatshirt was draped over her head like a cape. She had a bottle stuffed under her arm, and shoved it at us like we’d won a prize. “Here you go,” she said. “Chinese restaurants usually put a good luck ceramic kitty in the window for prosperity, but I figured some cheap champagne would do us just fine.”

She scooted past us, investigating the place. All the tables were covered in dark-green tablecloths, and the silverware was rolled up in white paper napkins. To the left of the door, the steam table kept the frog legs hot and covered with sneeze guards. Next to the frog legs were vats of roasted potatoes, buttered carrots, green salad with purple cabbage, and rolls with butter. A sign we’d had commissioned at the local printing press said: ALL-U-CAN-EAT-FROG-LEGS, $15.95!

“Isn’t that a little steep?” Stella said. She’d dressed up a little for the grand opening, which for her meant a white stretch halter top and black shorts. Her legs looked veiny and weak, like an old person’s, and somehow I felt sorry for her. “I thought we were gonna go for $9.95, just to get people in the door.”

“Well,” I said, “we have to at least break even.” I saw her smirk at me, then roll her eyes at Kenner when she clearly thought I wasn’t looking.

“It’s still a pretty good deal,” I insisted.

She shrugged her bare shoulders, which were freckled and leathery. We’d all agreed to help out after our day jobs, just until we were up and running and had some money to pay for help. We decided we’d open at 5:00, and serve dinner from Thursday through Sunday nights only. Stella and I had agreed to wait tables while Kenner tended bar, even though we were still waiting on our liquor license. That part made me nervous, but I was doing my best to go with the spirit of things and not present obstacles.

We all huddled back by the bar, and waited. There was one window framed by a pink curtain that faced Main Street, and through it, we could see the rain gushing down the gutters and splashing into the street. Cars drove by, spraying through puddles that looked like lakes. We watched the few brave souls who did venture out rush into the bar across the street. We all knew about the 2-for-1s from 5-7 at The Pig’s Eye.

“It sometimes takes a while for things to catch on,” Stella said, and tidied the straws and napkins on the bar. She looked away quickly, but I could have sworn she seemed on the verge of tears—or a nervous breakdown.

Kenner’s response was to get pissed off. He paced back and forth between tables, then kept going up to the window and rapping on it with his knuckle. “This town sucks!” he said. “I mean, there’s what—two restaurants total in this town?” He sat down at one of the tables, and drank the water which had ice melting in its glass. “You’d think people would be thrilled to have another choice! I mean, it’s the diner, with their soggy gravy all over everything, or the pizza place, whose sauce tastes like piss, and now us. I mean, we got frog legs! What more could people want?”

I motioned for him to get up when I saw a family of four come rushing at the door. The man held a toddler in his arms, and the woman dragged a small boy by the hand. No sooner did we get them seated than another couple came in. “We’re meeting another couple,” they said, wiping their eyeglasses off with their napkins and shaking their umbrellas. Within the hour, six tables were filled, but the strange thing was, I didn’t recognize anyone. Not a single person, and our town was very small. As a letter carrier, I could safely say I knew almost everyone. I asked Stella and Kenner if they recognized anyone. They both shook their heads.

It turned out every single customer was from out of town. Most had driven in from the neighboring city. Apparently, our advertising had paid off. In fact, one of the customers admitted to us, as he paid the tab, that he was writing a review and had decided to give us four stars for the food but only one for the atmosphere. He had a mustache and wore soft green corduroy pants and a blazer, even though it was late August and very humid. “If you want my advice,” he said, pen in his hand, “you pretty it up in here and you’ll do splendidly. Those frog legs are among the best I’ve ever had. Where do you import from? Thailand?”

We all nodded our heads vaguely. He left us his card, and a very healthy tip, and disappeared with his companion, a silent but very attractive young man he did not introduce us to.

“He’s gay as the day is long,” Stella said, and picked up his card. “Rumsford Sage,” she read. “Totally made-up name.”

“But he liked our food!” I said. I wanted to dance, as if I’d somehow personally made all this happen. “Do you know what this could mean for us?”

Kenner nodded a sly smile and made like he was punching a time clock. I could already imagine us out on the open road in our Winnebago, my withering stash of money buoyed up by our huge restaurant success. We could open more branches, hire people to run them, and disappear into the great world of leisure.

The table with children spilled milk all over the floor, asked for more ketchup, and complained that the fries were cold. “Well, that’s because you’re taking a kazillion years to eat them,” Stella said. “I brought them out like an hour ago.”

Kenner and I gave her hard looks, but when she handed the kid a quarter, everything seemed OK.

Not everyone who came in ordered the frog legs. Some wrinkled up their noses. Some asked for things we didn’t have (a dinosaur burger? what was that?). A couple people even looked at the menu and left. But as the night wound down, I’d occasionally grab Kenner around his skinny waist, snuggle up to him, and say, “I knew you could do it, baby. I just knew.” The look on his face told me we were back, and better than ever, and I could hardly wait to run my hands over his familiar, naked body.

Stella watched us coldly; I could feel it, just as I could feel her loneliness every time Kenner and I really got along, really meshed. But I didn’t let her ruin things for me this time. I simply stood back and watched her bring out another fresh vat of frog legs. When she pulled off the lid, the steam rose like swirly smoke and, for a second, clouded my view of her. But then I saw her wipe her face and look off longingly, out the window, down the street.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The Kenyon Review and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

Read an interview with Anne Panning by KR Fiction Editor Nancy Zafris.

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