And the Frog

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3

Meeting new people is hard. It’s fair to say that just about anyone would agree, even if they don’t do it out loud. Human brains are hyper-advanced computing systems; they construct the perception of a structure based on the information surrounding them. And the most complex variables, she always thought, had to be other human brains.

When something new comes into view of our brains, they immediately have to factor it in to their game plan for the immediate and/or distant future. If a crabapple falls in front of us during a morning walk, we must decide if we ignore it, pick it up, kick it, chuck it, even eat it. We have to rely on our computing skills to handle the new variable in such a way that ultimately benefits, or at the very least maintains our overall state of being.

And other brains are just entire trees of variables and contingency systems all by themselves, so factoring them in must be simply one of the most convoluted maneuvers that our personal squishy skull computers are responsible for making in daily life.

So anyway, she met a new person just then. When she turned away from her vomit, which the imaginary fox had been contently chowing, she was struck with a veritable smorgasbord (which is one of her favorite over-used phrases) of game-changing variables.

Though actually, she saw his RV first. It was one those small ones, where the front looks like the cab of a little truck and then the back bloats out into blocky walls and windows. Her father would’ve called it a “C size camper” and her grandmother would’ve called it a “packhorse guinea pig.” It looked old, like of the 80’s old, but that might’ve been because it was green and purple – mostly green, but striped and trimmed in purple. She would have to admit, if pressured, that it was a striking and almost even proud looking vehicle, and although she wasn’t a particular fan of meeting new people, she was rather relieved to see it.

In the passenger seat of the little cab was something a little stranger. There sat a giant humanoid stuffed frog thing. It looked like the kind of thing that would be a grand prize at a carnival ring toss, but bigger. From what she could see of its fuzzy upper torso and bulging head, she imagined it must’ve stood at around six feet tall.

The man, who’d given her plenty of time to oogle at his personal possessions, rapped his knuckles on the hood of the cab and said, with a grin, “This here is my pride and my home, Ferrule.” Then he stuck the same hand out in front of him and held it open for a shake. “And I’m John. John Bain.”

John Bain was a man who looked to be on the older side of young. That isn’t to say he looked young; she would’ve put him at maybe 60-65, but a jovial 60-65 He had on his cheeks and chin what couldn’t quite be called a beard, but more comfortably scraggle, and if there was hair on his head, she couldn’t identify it at this time. He was a good half-foot taller than her, which would put him at a few inches over six feet. He also had a bit of a gut underneath his tee shirt, which said Welcome Abroad on it. She lightly shook his hand, and when she did he didn’t move it, didn’t squeeze her hand or even pretend to shake his. It wasn’t so much a limp hand shake as much as it was just a non-shake, and she was almost embarrassed to think that he was actually going for a low five. But he didn’t seem to mind the shaking, and he said,

“And you are?”

She offered a courteous smile and said,

she said . . . oh bother, she didn’t remember her name. Oh, not one of these, she thought. Not one of those amnesiac-in-a-bind situations. How could she have fallen into that cliché? She didn’t want to be one of those Overboard, Memento, 50 First Dates characters. She had other, important things to do with herself, or at least she was fairly certain she did. Its hard to be sure when you’re an amnesiac, in a bind. It could’ve been worse though. At least she remembered enough to know she’d forgotten something. And she remembered that she wasn’t quick to trust new people, so she didn’t tell John Bain that she didn’t know her own name. Instead, she offered the first name she could think of, which was,

“Emmaline.”

He nodded his head, grinned again. “Emmaline, you have yourself a very nice name.” And she grinned too, because she was happy with Emmaline, and felt lucky that it had come to her so quickly. “So, may I ask why we find you by your lonesome out on the most open of open roads?”

Well, now how was she to answer that one? She legitimately had no clue why she was so alone. Her car had vanished, her boyfriend with it, and no one else, other than John Bain and his Ferrule and his giant stuffed frog, had apparently decided to make use of the road in what reasonably felt like six to eight hours. That was the truth, as well the whole amnesia situation, which she had already elected to lie about. How could she explain her situation to a stranger, even without deception? It was far too much to present to someone you didn’t even know, like when a cashier at a fast food restaurant asks if you want a single or a double, and you instead explain to them that your mother doesn’t think you’re responsible enough to own a dog because of the one time you let your baby cousin gnaw on a piece of peanut brittle before he had teeth. How is the cashier expected to field that sudden information, and how is John Bain expected to field Emmaline’s sudden information? Faced with this moral conundrum, she decided just to say, “I was in an accident.”

Vague but truthful statements, she decided, would be her short-term strategy. One of both her father and her grandmother’s favorite lessons had been that the more lies you tell, the harder it is to remember them all. What her father meant to teach was that one should not lie, but what her grandmother meant was that if one lies, they should do it in an orderly and not overly excessive fashion.

John Bain closed his eyes and shook his head, visibly unsurprised. “That’s no good, no good at all. Were you hurt?”

She looked at both of her arms, realizing just then that she hadn’t as yet checked to see if any damage had come to her physical person. Evidently it hadn’t.

“I don’t think so.”

John Bain’s eyes smiled for a second. “Good. Were you alone?”

“No, but . . .” She hadn’t meant to insert that but, but it seemed to suddenly slip its way in, like some subconscious part of her wasn’t jiving with the conscious part and had thought they’d agreed to explain more. “. . . but I am now.”

“I am sorry to hear that.” John Bain made a face of sympathy, but it was more the face you’d give to someone who spent their last quarter on a broken arcade game than someone who’s recently experienced true loss. Even so, because she never liked people feeling sorry for her, she said,

“It’s alright.”

His eyes flashed that light again, even quicker this time, and he said, “So what, you just been roamin’ the road since then?”

That sounded about right. She nodded.

“Got any idea where you’re going, or are you just going?” He asked it like he already knew the answer, and she answered like he was right.

“Just going.”

Then they stood there for a while, in the yellow-grey light of the great outside, and she knew she had no choice really but to ask for a ride, but had also noticed that he’d made no indication to offer one, and traditional conduct suggested that she didn’t want to impose. But she ultimately didn’t have time to suss the proper stratagem for the moment because suddenly he spun on his heal and was walking away. She watched his back as he walked down the left side of the RV. And she glanced over at the frog in the passenger seat. When her eyes returned to John Bain, he was opening the door on the side of the RV, and then he was stepping in. Momentarily he appeared in the cab window, driver’s seat side. She watched him make himself comfortable, adjust his rear-view mirror, fasten his seat belt, lightly knock the stuffed frog two times on the shoulder with his right fist. And then he turned on the engine, turned his eyes to the road, and started slightly when he saw her standing there.

She started too with slight embarrassment, and backed stepped a few paces out of the RV’s way. John Bain, in the window, looked confused. He unbuckled his seatbelt, seemed to unadjust the rear-view mirror, and opened the driver side door. He stood awkwardly so that his legs were still in the cab but his torso protruded out, one hand on the top of the cab and the other supporting by gripping the top of the door. and said, “You comin’?” Then he motioned to the left with his head.

She tracked her eyes that way until she saw that he’d left open the door through which he’d entered. She felt a little more embarrassed and then nodded because yes, of course she was coming. She walked over to the door.

Now, it hadn’t slipped her general attention that the western world (and possibly the eastern world too, but the farthest east she’d ever been was Tennessee), is much too fond of many over-utilized metaphors, one of which being that of the door. When one door closes, another opens and all that. What frustrated her, in this particular instance, was that these metaphors were so non-specific. This is a necessary element, of course, but this moment didn’t have the room for that kind of logic recognition. She wanted to know the parable about the doors of strange RV drivers. What was the general track record of accepting this invitation?

Sometimes she admired the “drifter” types for their ability to put so much of their direction in the hands of people they didn’t know. A hitch hiker is a person who trusts the odds that the human who decides to give them a lift is helpful as opposed to, say, a cannibal. She didn’t peg John Bain as a cannibal but at the same time she’d never tried to assess that possibility in anyone before, so she really had no reason to accept her own analysis. However, she was not just a hitchhiker, and even if John Bain ate people his was the first vehicle she’d seen in this long while in limbo, and so she didn’t risk passing up the opportunity. The open doorway led immediately to three steps made of metal, and she did indeed hoist herself up.

Light shifted as she entered the bulging backside of the RV. Because of that and because she was out of her element, as they say, she didn’t immediately make out much of the fine details of the interior. It was indubitably a tight squeeze. There was a small table to one side, encased in booth-style seats, and across from it was a shrunken kitchen, a sink, a slender stovetop with two burners, and some cabinets. There was also a recliner that didn’t look like it had come with the vehicle, because it was dark maroon in color and the shag carpet nearly matched the green of the exterior. At the back was another small door that opened to the outside, this one without steps, and in back-right corner was curved door that looked like it opened like an accordion. And there were pictures, some framed and some not, covering nearly all open wall space. That was all she could make out before John Bain said,

“Be sure to close that door.”

She turned to the doorway she’d left agape, and stepped one step back down to close it. She reached out, grabbed the handled, pulled shut the screen door, but left the main door hanging open.

“That’s just the screen,” said John Bain, “You gotta –”

“Yeah,” she said, and opened the screen door, clicked it into the inside of the main door, and officially sealed the vehicle (she knew to do this because Saphal and her had watched many videos about travel-related things when they’d first talked about traveling). Once the door was pulled in she saw, scratched into the metal just above her eye level were the words we’re all chasing something out here.

“Don’t be afraid to have a seat in the throne there. She’s bolted into the floor.” John Bain gestured with a thumb to the recliner. “Just don’t lay her back when I get goin’, or she’s liable to snap in two if things get bumpy.”

Emmaline plopped herself into the “throne,” which was probably three times as deep as she expected, and so comfortable that she honest to goodness almost started crying. But Emmaline did not cry in strange places.

As she sat into the chair, it caught her off guard again by swiveling until she planted her feet. John Bain chuckled. “Don’t get to spinnin’ around too much neither. I said she was bolted in, but I did that a time and a half ago.” She spun until she was facing the cab end, and replanted. Inches away from her knees now was the back of the passenger seat, in which sat the giant frog.

The cab was lower than the living area, and actually the floor just kind of ended before it dipped down to where John Bain and the frog sat. Above them was the bed, or the pad that served as a mattress, but it looked more like it was being used as a storage space as opposed to a bedroom. A couple coolers, bags, and a small foldable grill she could see at the edge from where she sat. “You could climb up and ride there if you’d like, too. Long as you promise to hold tight, like a sailor in a storm.”

She pictured herself standing on the top of a tall mast (that’s what it’s called right?) as the ship below it rocked and rumbled, slinging her about in the black and violent sky. “I’m good,” she said.

“Suitcherself,” said John Bain as he adjusted his rear-view mirror for the second time. She watched it, and for a flash she saw his eyes in the reflection and he winked at her. She smiled politely, because she did not like that. She also was a little irritated that he seemed so fixated on his mirror, but wasn’t going to ask about it. He answered anyway. “I don’t like to see what’s behind me until I know I’m leavin’ it behind, you know?” She did not know, and she was only more confused because the window she’d seen on the back door had had a blanket pinned over it, and so there was no way to see behind the RV anyhow.

He grabbed the seat belt from over his shoulder, said “So,” then pulled it down and clicked it. “You said you don’t know where you are goin’, any idea where you were going?” Until that question, Emmaline hadn’t realized there was a difference, in his meaning.

“We were just,” she said, “getting away.”

“Mmm,” John Bain hummed as he pinched a key that was already in the ignition, “I can sure relate to that.” Everything shook a little as the engine grumbled on. She heard what sounded like a glass fall over behind her. “Wups,” said John Bain as he shifted into gear. And then they rolled forward, and then they were going.

“Well, what’s the plan? I can take you far, not so far. I can take you to some place with a phone, or a bed, both. You hungry? I know a couple good spots we could grab some grub. You like chili? Shoot, what time is it? Is it morning? You want some breakfast? ’Spose you don’t eat chili for breakfast. Or do you?”

She hadn’t heard anything past the word hungry, because yes, she was. She was thinking of hunting again, which was easy again, because she was no longer out in the world where huntable things lived. As the fox hopped through her mind, and John’s Bain’s voice was just fuzz in the background, her awareness returned just in time for her to hear “Or do you?” And though she didn’t actually know what the question was, she felt confident enough in answering,

“You do.”

She saw, from the side of his face, John Bain smile and he said, “Alright then.” And he knocked twice on the frog’s shoulder again, which was the only part of the fuzzy thing she could see from the recliner.

For the remainder of the drive, no one spoke. After a little while John Bain turned a knob up on his dashboard, though not too far. Emmaline could hear voices coming from the speakers in the cab, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying. Whatever it was, the voices seemed to change frequently, and John Bain would chuckle every once in a while as he listened.

But Emmaline didn’t pay much attention. The period of quiet, which was also a period of having not much else to do but to give a slightly more observational survey of the RV, prompted to her to give a slightly more observational survey of the RV. She swiveled the chair so that it faced away from the cab, and began the looking.

She was on the same side as the “kitchen,” so she couldn’t see it from the front. She did find on the other side, however, that the small table and booth was accompanied by additional cabinets above and beside, all of which were a dark brown like their kitchen counter parts. The knobs of them were connected to each other via tightly wrapped rubber bands, which she figured was to keep them from flinging open mid-turn and/or bump.

All of them were this way, except for the one farthest back. This one was instead shut by screws driven into the edges, and it also had two strips of caution tape crossing to make an X fastened onto it with additional screws. She first thought this was mysterious, and second that it was excessive. She tried not to think much more than this, because she was a guest in someone else’s mobile home.

There were other things she saw. Underneath the mysterious/excessive cabinet was attached an old fashion coffee maker. It was a boxy looking thing with a few buttons and a space for the coffee pot. A Mr. Coffee, she knew because of her father. It was notably nifty.

There were also some hooks mounted on the wall above the table, holding a few mugs, a rag, and large fork with a hole at the end of the handle that rendered it hangable. Again, she had questions but was not intent on asking them.

That sufficiently noted, she turned her attention to the pictures. Most of them, she immediately absorbed, were of single people, with only a very few featuring a couple or three. They were the size of your standard printed photographs, the kind you find in scrapbooks that your kinder loved ones put together. Most were thumb-tacked right onto the wall, but there were also two cork boards which they covered, one small one above the hooks, and a larger one on the wall behind the driver’s seat.

She looked at a few of them a bit closer. None of the people in them were looking at the camera. One woman was sitting on a couch reading, another, older woman was in mid run down a beach. Emmaline took a moment to silently congratulate her for exercising so late in life. Another was of a man sitting at a table at a diner, seemingly in mid conversation though there was no one sitting in the chair across from him, in front of which sat a plate of food.

And so Emmaline came to realize that this endeavor of observation had only brought to her a litany of questions she knew she’d never ask, for which reason she turned the recliner back around to face the back of the giant frog’s seat.

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