The King of Frogs
The studio smelled like an abandoned gas station. The harsh fumes of acrylics, oils and paint thinner mixed with the smell of the greasy concrete garage floor and the uncovered pine beams that bordered patches of soft pink insulation. It had been snowing since the night before, and a solid layer of powder coated the streets. The bright white surface collected the little sun it could and amplified the light through a city that felt like the inside of a snow globe. There were no responsibilities on a day like this. Work and school were cancelled. Adults slid down the sidewalk in rubber coated dress shoes. Kids trudged from house to house offering to shovel snow for minimal compensation. You could brew a pot of coffee and watch old movies back to back to back, or just stare out your kitchen window at the slowly growing mounds of powder as if they were the piles at the bottom of a massive hour glass.
“What do you want to do?” I asked my wife, Hasina. She was six months pregnant, and I was trying to urge her out of the studio, away from the fumes.
“Tacos,” she said, putting her brush down on the lip of the easel and wiping blue paint from her finger onto a smock that had once been white.
I nodded. Tacos.
“I’ll go get the couch warm,” she said.
I stepped onto California Avenue, carefully avoiding a slushy pile of salted ice. I barely recognized him. His dark hair hung in long greasy locks that streaked diagonally across his face, tangling with clumps of uneven beard. His walk was what gave him away: slow, short steps, arms bent at the elbow and stuck close to his abdomen as if his rib cage needed a second layer of defense. I almost felt like I had seen myself, in some alternate universe, a life where instead of a wife, a career, and a baby on the way, it had all slipped through my fingers.
My body moved towards him despite the strong impulse to retreat. He looked up. His eyes, still the same luminescent green, matched his jacket and pants. He stared in my direction, but there was no semblance of recognition. The void in place of a decade of friendship made my neck and elbows quiver.
“Eduardo!” I shouted across fifteen feet of snow-covered road. Our eyes locked onto each others.
The flurries all around us floated to the ground with no sense of urgency. He lifted a gloved hand to his face and lowered all but his index finger into a fist as if to say “shhhh…” to a room full of kindergartners.
I don’t know exactly when Eduardo began to think he was Jesus.
Cold winter mornings before the sun came up we stood on the platform of the Damen Avenue brown line stop, backpacks bursting with overgrown history and algebra textbooks. The wind stung our faces and are feet were already wet and frozen despite three pairs of socks. In the mornings we were drowsy because at night we painted. Once my mom was asleep, I opened my second floor window, put my feet against the brick of the neighboring house with my back against our building and shimmied to the ground. I walked to Western Avenue and tossed pennies at his window. The light went out, leaving the giant cardboard cut-out of Kermit the Frog that looked out from his room in the dark like a king looking down from the balcony of a palace. A few minutes later he popped out of the front door, backpack rattling with spray cans and stencils of Sesame Street characters in pornographic poses.
“Let’s hit the side of the Army Surplus store on Lincoln,” I said.
“Nah,” said Eduardo. “I got a better idea.”
I said I wanted to paint in places that would be seen, but I let Eduardo make sure we only painted where we’d never be caught, and then blamed our invisibility on his timidity. We painted the wooden docks along the river behind Lane Tech, the underpass at California and Irving Park, the rooftops of condos that were under construction up and down Addison. We painted in places that would only be exposed to frustrated construction workers and kids in oversized First Down jackets, drinking Slurpees and making out in the wooded area by the river.
I wanted to put our stencils on the Belmont Avenue ‘El’. I wanted to paint the sign on Wrigley Field. Hell, I think if I had I’d had the guts, there would have been a giant masturbating Elmo covering the façade of the Sears Tower, but instead I let Eduardo keep us stenciling the rocks that lined the lakeshore between Fullerton and Montrose: Big Bird taking Snuffelufugus from behind, Oscar the Grouch felating the Count, Cookie Monster corn-holing Maria. Bert and Ernie in a dual reach around. The last one looked almost like a celtic knot from a distance, a meditative pattern with no beginning and no end.
We squeezed through a hole in the chain link fence at the end of the lot off Sacramento Avenue and sat on the docks in the woods behind Lane Tech. Underneath the light of a full moon, the docks along the North Branch of the Chicago River felt like they were somewhere South on the Mississippi. We felt like we were in some other America that we had only read about in Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The imposing towers of Lane Tech looked like they should adorn a prison or a palace. The water moved slowly and once in a while we would see some dog-sized mammal pop out of the water.
“A beaver!” I yelled.
“An Otter,” said Eduardo. “No beavers here.”
I was just thrilled to see life emerge from those waters that we assumed to be completely toxic.
“You think there’s frogs out here?” I Asked Eduardo. He was obsessed with frogs. He said they were disappearing.
“Were,” he said running a fingernail over the bark of a tree. “But, I doubt it anymore.” He caressed a blade of grass between his thumb and forefinger. “They absorb everything in the environment through their skin. Thin skin.”
“You know that story,” I asked him, “about the frog prince?” I laid face towards the moon-lighted sky on the wooden dock imaging Eduardo trapped in the body of a frog, only needing a kiss to free his princely spirit. I imagined myself picking up his slimy, wart-covered body, struggling against my grip as I pushed it towards my lips.
“Of course,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“It kind of reminds me of you,” I said. “Just a frog who needs a kiss.”
“You can get high kissing frogs,” he said.
I pulled the frog in my mind closer and kissed it, but there was no prince. Just Eduardo.
“I think it’s licking,” I said, “that gets you high.”
It was April the first time he told me he was the Son of God. We were sitting on the roof of a building his uncle cleaned. We helped his uncle by sweeping stairways, changing light bulbs, vacuuming foyers, discarding disregarded mail. In the winter we shoveled snow. In the summer we cut the tiny patches of grass that grew between the sidewalk and the street, a small reminder that somewhere beyond these expanses of three-flats and brownstones, there was a thing called nature that didn’t run along the beach in a thin stretch from the North side all the way to the Museum of Science and Industry.
Eduardo’s mom was Puerto Rican, his dad was Croatian, but he came from the Serbian part of what was then Yugoslavia. His uncle, a stout curly haired man from the Croatian side, always gave us a six-pack of High Life when we finished our work. “I can’t give you real beer because you’re too young,” he’d say scratching at the dark leather of his face.
The roof of the red brick building was coated in a thick black tar. Little metal cylinders topped by what looked like samurai hats poked through the black expanse at irregular intervals. We opened our beers and flipped the caps out over the alley. His uncle looked up at the Sun, which was bright for April in Chicago. “Not bad day this day,” he said pushing his lips into a tight frown. The sun was high and clear. It was probably cold, but any hint of sunshine felt like Spring.
“Not bad,” said Eduardo.
I pulled out a joint and lit it, which was his uncle’s signal to go downstairs. “You hear about this priest?” I asked
“At school?” he asked.
“Nah.” I took a deep pull and tried to speak as he inhaled. “Some church on the South side’s got a stigmata. A Croatian.”
He stared at the glowing tip of my joint.
I blew on it to keep it burning. “Psychic.”
“What you mean, psychic?”
“I mean his mind wraps all around the world. He sees things. He probably knows we’re gonna go see him this Sunday.”
“Yeah, we. I ain’t going alone,” I said.
“What about a car?” He asked.
“My mom will let me borrow the car to go to church on Sunday.”
My mom had recently bought a car. It was an ‘84 Escort that looked like it was made of chewing gum. To start it you had to pop the hood and yank on cords one by one until it turned over.
The wind picked up and the hatch that served as an access door to the roof slammed shut.
“Did you see that?” Eduardo said.
“The door,” he said, looking at it as if it might open as suddenly as it had shut.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I did that.”
“What do you mean you did that?”
“Shut it. The door. I did it.”
I took another pull from my joint. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m his son,” he said.
I let it hang there in the air for a moment that extended beyond the limits of comfort or reason. He didn’t laugh or smile. I took another slow pull on the joint and pretended I hadn’t heard him.
Sunday came and I had the car. I pulled up outside of Eduardo’s house. He was sitting on the steps in front of his place staring at the palms of his hands like he was trying to tell his own fortune. I yelled his name and he hopped up, stumbling a little on one leg then the other before finding his balance. The engine cut out just as he steadied. “Man,” he said, “this car is a piece.”
I popped the hood. “Pretty though.”
I looked up to Eduardo’s bedroom window and saw the cardboard cut-out of Kermit, his eyes piercing and empty, his light green mane regal like the Sun’s corona. I thought for a minute how as a kid that frog was as real to me as anyone else in the world, a friend and mentor, reporting from some neighborhood that must have been on the other side of Albany Park. Now he was just some two-dimensional stranger with pupils the shape of keyholes.
I stuck my hand into the engine and rummaged around. I didn’t know the first thing about engines, but if I unplugged and re-plugged enough stuff, moved enough parts, it would start.
Eduardo stood there snapping his fingers at irregular intervals and stomping a foot to some beat only he could hear.
The church was in Pilsen. We drove down Damen Avenue all the way from Lawrence Avenue to Roosevelt Road. Damen Avenue was named for a priest who had been away from Chicago during the fire. When he heard that the city was burning he prayed that God would spare his church. In exchange, Father Damen kept a candle burning in the church as long as it stood. The church survived. He lit the candle and kept it burning, but sometime after he died they switched the candle’s flame for a light bulb atop a plastic candlestick. I thought of Chicago burning to the ground, then of a priest far away making promises to God in desperation, and then of this little plastic candle that some janitor had probably been asked to buy form Wal-Mart. It seemed like a cheap way to keep a promise to God.
The church was old and Polish: Saturated, dark, and morbid like a Polanski film. The bright primary colors of the stained glass windows that circumnavigated the nave contrasted against the violent scenes they depicted. Staring into the pictures made me think our minds were built around some unsolvable riddle and destined, for the time being, to obsess over its solution like the lyrics of a song hidden just beyond the tips of our tongues.
The pews were filled to their brims with old Croatian ladies, scarves tied around their hair, ankles thick under the weight of their bodies, mouths curved into permanent arcs in one direction or the other.
The priest emerged from behind the Alter with slow, intentional steps towards the lectern. His eyes were trained on the worn black leather tips of shoes that peaked from under a long black robe. His hair and beard were overgrown and unwashed. He looked like someone who slept outdoors. This priest was not like the ones at our school. They were kind of like softened versions of our fathers: Men that we imagined would be florists or nurses if they weren’t protected by the church. This priest was a wolf, a gypsy, outside of any social role we could have imagined for him. He mounted the step before the lectern and seemed to grow 30 feet rather than six inches. His head remained bowed, hair stringing over the sides of his brow. The breath of everyone in the room became fixed to the rhythm of his own. He inhaled as we exhaled. He exhaled as we inhaled. We were possessed by his silence.
And then he spoke.
Harsh sounds issued from rough lips. Sharp Slavic syllables lofted easily into the air. No one looked away. No one coughed. No one shuffled.
It took me a moment to realize that I didn’t understand a word that was being said.
Eduardo did, though. And so, it seemed, did everyone else.
Eduardo’s eyes were trained on the figure the priest cut against the gray stone and colored glass. His eyes moved across the man like he was the text of a book.
A few months later the virgin appeared: A mark on the underpass where the Kennedy crossed Fullerton. The city was calling it a salt stain. The archdiocese was saying it was real if you thought it was real.
People lined up for blocks with framed pictures of the Virgin brought in for comparison and bundles of flowers as if it were the sight of a recent car accident. Old Polish ladies were everywhere. They prayed loudly and competed to out-cry their neighbors. If it weren’t for the traffic zooming overhead, and the press equipment beaming information from towers atop their vans back to home bases around the country, the old ladies in babushkas, tears streaming through their hands at the sight of this strange smudge on the wall of the cave-like underpass, would have seemed something from another century.
That’s where I met her.
She was standing towards the back of the crowd, behind the old Polish ladies, behind the journalists attempting to give gravity to what they saw as a lame assignment, behind the Catholic official who went down to pretend he was investigating the authenticity of the ‘miracle’, behind the Columbia College photo students who thought they’d found their subject at last.
She was penciling something in a notebook.
I was staring in her direction because, well, she was hot.
She caught me staring. I wasn’t sure whether to smile or look away.
After five seconds that seemed to last a thousand, she rolled her eyes. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” She said.
I blinked, shuffled and tried to think of something clever. “Pardon?”
“That’s so rude,” she said.
“To just be all staring at someone like that.”
“Yup, you’re sorry,” she said.
I nodded at my feet.
“Why don’t you just say ‘hi’?”
“I don’t know. It’s weird to just start talking to someone,” I said.
“Not nearly as weird as to just start staring at someone.”
“Check this out.” She extended her hand. “Hi, I’m Hasina. This is some fucked up shit, this, right?” She said gesturing towards the salt stain Virgin.
“Crazy…” I said. “Do you think it’s real?”
“I think it’s real funny that all these old ladies are praying to a salt stain.” She went back to drawing in her notebook. “I think it’s real interesting to be at the end of the twentieth century and find that an accidental cave painting made international news. And I think that no matter what I think, it’s really right in front of us.”
We ended up at the Golden Angel having endlessly refillable coffees until the sun was nearly up.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
I looked out at the parking lot. “Right here.”
“The parking lot of the Golden Angel?” She laughed.
“Pretty much,” I said. “You?”
“My dad’s Egyptian. He’s a journalist.”
“Photographer. She grew up in Hyde Park. She was working on photos contrasting the ancient and the modern, bedouins with cable television, and that stuff. That’s how she met my dad.”
“Your dad was a Bedouin?”
“No… a teacher in Cairo,” she said.
“And they came to Chicago and had you and that’s that?”
“And why do you tag,” I asked.
“I don’t tag. I paint,” she said. “I can’t wait for some gallery to care about what I’m doing. I gotta get the work out there now.”
She painted on sidewalks, any surface that ran along the ‘el’, the trunks of trees that lined the patch of grass between the road and houses on residential streets. Unlike us, she would only paint places that people might see.
Her work was seen all over the North side. There were parts that were still foreign nations locked in warfare. Writing on the North side could cause a fistfight with some rival crew, but there were places where writing was vital, staking territorial and economic claims the violation of which could be much more grave.
She called her work bio-hieroglyphics, intermingling her Midwestern and Egyptian DNA. Messages that weren’t too tough to decipher: a stick figure flipping the bird, with a hand that looked like a pitchfork, at a monkey faced man in a presidential sash; a stick figure wagging an oversized index finger at a falling bomb, next to one with a sandwich and a big thumbs up. But her signature was painting over political posters. She would put figures from famous paintings over the faces of politicians and add distorted biblical quotes in thought bubbles. During the talks about gentrifying the area that was Cabrini Green, she put a Warhol wig on Daley and a thought bubble that read: “Blessed are the poor, poor bastards.”
We met in front of the burrito joint on Lincoln and Addison at one in the morning. I had taken the car. Hasina was already there. She was wearing an oversized flannel shirt, loose jeans, untied brown leather boots and a dark blue, felt pea coat. Her hair was pushed back under a night watchman’s cap. She had a black backpack filled with cans and markers. She didn’t work from stencils.
“You came for me,” she said as I was walking towards her.
“Well, I came in any case.”
“Well, are you here for a burrito?”
Her body seemed relaxed, but her eyes were focused, ready to go to work, and she was chewing on the inside of her cheek, something I didn’t yet know was a pre-paint habit.
I gestured towards the car, and she got in. I opened the hood.
“What’re you, changing the oil?”
“I’ve got to start it.”
“Usually people do that with keys.”
I pulled on a chord and the engine started.
The lights were already out in Eduardo’s room. I could barely make out the silhouette of Kermit in front of the darkened background. Eduardo was sitting on the porch staring into his gloved palms.
We left the car around the corner, parked in a lot where it wouldn’t call attention, and went cautiously under the bridge.
The Virgin spent nights alone.
The cold air drove the crowds indoors. The old Polish ladies wouldn’t brave below zero in the dark even for mother Mary. The petals of the flowers that surrounded the sight were frozen and brittle. The glass on the portraits was clouded with frost. In the dark it looked less like a portrait of the mother of Jesus and more like a stain on the stone wall of an underpass, but the quiet threat of night gave any superstition credence. Hasina, bandana around her mouth, as much to protect from fumes as to hide her identity from cameras, lined up her cans along the base of the wall. She stepped back from the spot, calculating distances, building the mental scaffolding for what she was about to create.
Eduardo stood close by, watching with the same eyes he had trained on the priest. He was trying to read the spot on the wall just as he had tried to read the grizzly Rasputin who spoke in tongues.
Hasina lifted the can and began to paint in careful swirling motions around the Virgin’s head: A streak of taupe, mauve, a deep dolphin-skin blue. Slowly a tan head like a lightbulb emerged from a swirling gray background. Two hands appeared at the cheeks. An empty tunnel-to-nowhere mouth that could just as likely have lead to another universe as an esophagus. A thin, alien body extended down from the neck. Layer upon layer until the Virgin had disappeared completely behind the screaming facsimile of Munch’s most famous figure.
Neither of us noticed when Eduardo started to cry. If it was when the Virgin disappeared completely behind the layers of paint, or when Hasina applied the first curving line over the salt-coated cement surface. But when she finished there was no mistaking it. He stood there, paralyzed in front of the palimpsested underpass wall, mouthing over and over, mother.
“Eduardo,” I said, trying to pull him back from whatever tunnel he’d crawled into.
“C’mon, man. We gotta get outta here.”
“It’s time to go.”
“She’s got her paints all packed.”
“It’s just a stain, man.”
He glared at me with eyes that seemed to gather force from some other world. I was sure he was preparing to release all of that amassed energy in an explosion of punches. I wouldn’t have stopped him. I couldn’t of.
But, he didn’t hit me.
His gaze attached itself to the underbelly of the overpass, as his hands grasped the collars of my black hoodie. His jaw spread wide giving path to the release of a scream that must have been years in its travels from the diaphragm. It lasted as long as a sermon. When I think about it, even today, my ears ring.
A flashlight beam doused us all in an unbearable light.
“HEY,” a voice yelled. “STOP!”
STOP! We already had.
STOP! It was too late to stop.
STOP! If only we could.
I shoved Eduardo who had me by the collar, grabbed Hasina by the sleeve and ran around the corner to the car.
It wouldn’t start. We hid in the backseat, pulled tightly against one another. We didn’t speak.
Hasina cried. The taste of her tears filled both of our mouths.
I couldn’t say now whether it was one hour or six, but I know the sun had begun to rise.
“It was just a stain,” she said. Dry streaks crossed her cheeks where the moisture from her tears had frozen.
“Yeah, I know.”
“I thought it would be beautiful.” She said that last word like beauty was a religion. Maybe it was.
At dawn I popped the hood, moved the cables around and started the car.
As we drove away we saw the news vans gathering and the old Polish ladies crying, that day for different reasons.
I never painted again, though I started taking design classes. Hasina moved her work indoors, and eventually went to the Art Institute. I went by Eduardo’s house with a roll of pennies from time to time. Kermit was gone from his perch above the street. I threw the pennies one by one like it was a wishing well instead of a window. No one ever responded.
I walked up the snow-covered steps to our new house, tacos in hand. I wondered if I would tell her that I’d seen him. I wondered if our baby would be a boy or a girl. I wondered what movie we’d watch that afternoon. I wondered how many paintings it would take to equal the power of that one salt stain.