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Instructions for Failure

Janet Benton

Other frog couples came to the other tubs and stayed the night, making cow-like calls and leaving fertilized eggs behind, but not one ever jumped again into that black tub where the immobile couple floated. I kept going out to look, astounded by their faithfulness to duty, or was it idiocy? Or perhaps they just didn’t know what else to do. They had no instructions for failure. 

You probably didn’t count, but I did. They stayed for fourteen days in April, and then they were gone. I’d carried a magazine outside after work and planned to sit on the grass and read it. Instead, I ended up reading that letter you’d tucked into the magazine accidentally. By then I almost took the frogs’ company for granted; they had become a sort of company to me. But on that fourteenth afternoon—nothing but emptiness in the tub, save the multiplying lilies and the water that reflected back my face, my desperate face. I needed to know. I needed to ask them: How did they know when to give up? 

I know they did because nothing swims in that tub. The other tubs hold about ten thousand tadpoles each, really. They appeared about a month ago, tiny black wriggling creatures with no visible eyes, teeming masses pushing against the walls of the bathtub ponds. I could send you a picture. The ponds lose water in this heat so I fill them up in the evenings, and dozens of tadpoles float onto the lily pads. When day comes they dry out in the sun, ink spots on the leaves that the sun burns holes through. 

Actually, they seem desperate to get onto those heart-shaped pads when the sun is highest and boring into everything; they push and wiggle their blind fat heads, tails curving like shoe horns, trying to pry themselves onto the pads. They want the light. It destroys them.

In the living room, on the sofa, that’s where I am. Writing you again, this letter I can’t send because you left no address. Through the huge plate-glass windows I see old man Foster across the street, bent against the side of his house to turn on the faucet. His head is twisted toward the grass, watching for water to sprout from his sprinkler. It emerges feebly at first, but as his hand turns the water lifts taller and leaps to the sky. For seconds each droplet wins out over gravity, becomes the opposite of rain.

Now skinny old Foster is reaching up, one arm in the air, wagging his hand at me. I wave back. He probably hasn’t had a good meal since his wife passed months ago. I should bring one over, at least once a week I should. But that might make him feel indebted. Sometimes kindness is an imposition. I felt guilty when Mrs. Neilly down the road brought us a beautiful apple pie to welcome us ten years ago, because when was I going to bake a pie in return?  

I wonder if Foster smells his wife on her things. Your musky odor used to fill our bed, but I had to wash the sheets. Now even your pillowcase has lost your scent. 

You forgot your toothbrush and a few other things. Like your share of what happened, honey. But did you know that people exchange DNA when they’re physically intimate? And that each fetus becomes a part of its mother forever? So there are still strands of you in me and me in you, changing us, becoming us. Not to mention all the almost-people we engendered, holding on inside me. We all hold on, at a molecular level. You just can’t see it, honey. You never would see it.


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