A toad lived under our patio for a few summers when I was a kid. I didn’t feed him or take care of his needs in any way, but I nevertheless thought of him as my pet. I named him Thumper. On random nights I’d be parked on the patio, reading or drawing, and Thumper would emerge from his shallow burrow and tentatively hop around the yard. This was before I had my first dog, and so I came to consider Thumper as another kid my age might consider her cocker spaniel: He was part of my family, and as a result I felt a little bit responsible for him. I also felt a certain kinship: In my early teens, I, too, thought of myself as taking a few tentative hops outside my own cozy burrow.
The summer I was 14, my father was hospitalized with a lung cancer that would, within two years, kill him, and my mother turned over the task of mowing the lawn to me. This actually suited me fine. Marilyn French had just published The Women’s Room, and after dinner I had been reading it on the patio until darkness forced me indoors.
Fired up by Marilyn, and casting about for a feminist insurgency that a skinny, shy teenager could lead noiselessly from the suburbs, I thought that taking on a task generally reserved for my Dad seemed as good a place to start a revolution as any. I felt smugly satisfied casting off the shackles of traditional male-female roles, as liberated as if I were swinging a burning bra above my head at a Miss America Pageant. Without, of course, any actual fire burning an actual bra, because that might attract some attention.
One night just before dusk, I was quickly finishing up the last corner of the yard, when I saw a largish stone in the path of the power mower I was pushing. I liked to hit rocks or clumps of grass when I mowed, because they sometimes shot out like bullets once they hit the whirling blades under the engine. So I gunned the mower and charged the rock in my path with a small head of steam to see if I could get it to ricochet off the house.
It was too late before I realized it wasn’t a stone at all. It was Thumper, and I couldn’t stop or swerve in time to avoid him. In horror I watched as he slipped under the chassis and his guts instantly spit out of the return on the side. I didn’t stick around to see what parts, exactly, because I had already dropped the running mower and sprinted screaming toward the house. My mother had been visiting my father all afternoon in the hospital, but thankfully she was home by now. “Oh for Pete’s sake,” she said wearily, as I recounted, sobbing, what had happened. “I thought you cut off a toe.”
I was thinking about Thumper recently—after, for the umpteenth day in a row, I found two small frogs in my backyard swimming pool. The first day, I found them breast-stroking in the deep end, and after a few tries I managed to lift them out with a long-handled net and launch them over the fence, into a shady culvert more suited to a frog’s lifestyle than a chlorinated pool, where prolonged exposure could easily render them bloated specimens floating lifeless on a lab shelf somewhere.
But they were both back the next day, and the next, even as I tossed them further out. They seemed to be imitating forlorn family pets that, as periodic news accounts would have it, separated from their people nonetheless find their way back to the hearth.
By the fourth day, I woke expecting to see the frogs again, and, by this point, I was almost looking forward to it. I had rushed out to the pool before breakfast, in fact, convinced they’d be there as usual, powering their way to the bottom of the deep end with their strong froggy kicks and then floating up toward the surface, motionless and with all four legs splayed, riding on the current in a kind of drug-induced trance, before starting their shenanigans all over again.
But no, they weren’t there. Just to be sure, I uncapped the filter basket on the deck, and—aha! There they were! They were both caught in the whirlpool action of the filter basket, their limbs slack and eyes unfocused and glazed. Were it not for the current turning them in a slow dizzying circle, they would have looked just like small stoners soaking in a mini hot tub, too baked to speak.
And so it went. Each morning, I visited the pool to find them. And each morning, I fished them out with the net and deposited them back on the ground. They became a little like pets, a little like Thumper, and this routine was like a wordless game we played.
I had plenty of other stuff I should have been doing; but really, what else did they have to do? The life of a green frog is little more than an effort to blend in and avoid danger, which isn’t unlike how I feel half the time. It seemed to me a good thing to have someone watching your back.
And it’s not just me. Today, as I drove home, I noticed up ahead a crooked, portly figure at the side of a busy road. Cars were slowing as they neared him, and when I crawled past I could see that he was an off-duty bus driver, likely on his way home, and he was using his polished black shoe to nudge a snapping turtle the size of a shoebox to the edge of the road. He seemed reluctant to actually bend and lift the turtle to safety, so how he was going to get the turtle up and over the curb and onto the sidewalk, which would give the creature access to the woods beyond, was a mystery to me, and maybe to him and the turtle, too. Still, I admired him for trying.
I’ve long made peace with nabbing the occasional mouse in the laundry room. I still don’t like hearing the violent snap of the trap as it finds their soft vulnerable necks. But when you live in an old house, it’s a fact of life. The way I figure it, the mouse is invading my space, and if he’s going to crap on my tile floor, he just might have to pay the ultimate price for it.
But the pool—and to some degree, the busy road—is a different story. In a way, my pool has invaded their space—the frogs, toads, mice, voles, chipmunks, worms, crickets, and other creatures that eek out a meager living in the damp, rotting, wooded pockets of my yard. They manage to get by, these critters, with amenities far more humble than our own, and I sometimes think that the big cement pool plunked into the middle of their space must come off as an affront.
Like my frogs, those critters, too, have sometimes tumbled into the deep blue water, and I fish them out when I can. But still, more times than I like to remember, some have met their maker there. So what if I spend my time checking and rechecking the pool’s surface and opening and reopening the filter basket? So what if I sometimes feel like it’s me who is, in a way, locked in a never-ending battle with a current that just won’t quit? Like the bus driver sweating through his uniform as he urges the turtle homeward, isn’t this the least I can do?
Things took a turn a week or so into my routine when I awoke to find only one frog swimming in the pool. I fished him out with one swoop of the long-handled net—I was getting efficient at this—and opened the skimmer on the deck again, expecting to find his buddy. He was there all right, just as I thought he would be. But he was belly-up—dead, frozen with his legs splayed, spinning round and round in his final ride in the circling current of the filter basket. Wow, man, I imagined him saying. That was a wild ride.
I lifted him out and contemplated burial. But in the end I launched him into a final flight, and watched as he sailed one last time over the fence.
Since that day, I haven’t seen the remaining frog again. I’m not sure why that is, exactly, but I like to think he happened upon his buddy’s bloated body among the leaves in the culvert. I like to think he’s a wee bit wiser for it. But maybe not: Maybe instead he’s found bluer water, more rotted wood, or someone else to toss him aloft, a little closer to home.