tagRomanceThe Conquerer Frog

The Conquerer Frog

bydr_mabeuse©

The weather in Chicago sucks: the winters are cold and last too long, and the summers tend to get hot and stifling, but in between these extremes you get days in spring and fall when you can feel nature downshifting and changing gears and you feel yourself accelerating too, the seasons pushing you towards something new and exciting, somewhere you haven't been to yet. People get kind of crazy, and all over the city you feel it: something's happening, something big and probably sexy, and at night on the streets you pass people out looking for it too. It peaks right around Halloween.

I don't know how old you have to be before you stop feeling that primal tug of Halloween, the urge to go out and act crazy, to go out and possess the night and let it possess you. Halloween's not about monsters and ghouls and sticking knives through your head. It's about that end-of-summer excitement, an atavistic call back from when the harvest was in and the work done, the old year dying and the new one in the wind, that crack in the world between alive and dead, old and new. It's been a long time since I put on a costume and went out ringing doorbells and running through the alleys, but I still feel the urge. When the end of October comes and dark falls early, the moon gets bright and the leaves start blowing off the trees, I get the urge.

This particular night was right on the edge of Halloween and that feeling was in the air: Friday night in the universe, gusty and dark and Halloween to boot, and there was no way I could stay home and miss whatever was out there. I was too old for costumes and had nothing special planned, but I figured I'd go out and check out Wise Fools' Pub where J.B. Hutto and the Hawks were playing. It was only a couple blocks from my place and J.B. Hutto was one of the great original wild blues men who had come up with Muddy Waters and Elmore James. The weather sucks, like I said, but the music's great. I grabbed my coat and closed the door behind me and was gone like that.

Out on the street I was filled with that excitement. I was aware that each dark doorway I passed went somewhere; every lighted window gave a hint of some little intimate drama going on inside: boys and girls together in the mysterious Friday night, working their spells and charms on each other, the conjuring and banishing, summoning and surrendering in the light of flickering TV's or guttering candles. The secrets of the night are all sexual when you get down to it, and the magic we all know is sexual magic.

Halloween was still a few days off but this was the night people had chosen to celebrate, and there were people out in costume and wearing masks. Not all of them, but enough to make it feel like carnival, and the leaves blowing down the street grabbed at my legs as I walked along through the alleys with the moon caught in the phone lines overhead. I turned out into the bright lights of Lincoln Avenue and the string of bars, the scattered crowds of people wrapped up against the wind: masks, capes, wildness.

I stopped in at Katzenjammer's on the corner of Lincoln and Belden. It was jammed with people but no one I knew, or at least no one I recognized. It was hard to tell with the costumes. I had a beer standing at the bar, cold and sharp as October, sucked foam from my moustache and looked at the girls talking to the guys, the long gowns, fairy outfits, brides of Frankenstein; the guys with full face masks, the Freddy Kreugers, homicidal maniacs. Katzenjammer's is a drinker's bar, old, high ceilinged, and well lit. Everywhere eyes looking, peering through masks, leaning off the barstool to see around someone, waving, laughing; people coming in and going out with great gusts of dark air. And above it all the big ceiling fans revolved slowly in the cloud of cigarettes smoke like the secret wheels of the world.

Just a beer there because they're cheap. Wise Fools has the band so there's a cover charge and prices go up, but J.B. Hutto, the great slide blues guitarist was there, and I needed some music tonight: something raw and howling, just like the wind, just like I felt.

I left Katzenjammers, pushed my way out through the crowd and back into the cold wind. The sidewalks were pretty crowded with groups of people now, some in costume, some not, so I cut through the cars in the middle of the block and angled across the street to get to Fools'. I was busy watching the traffic so I didn't even see Chapman at first. He was standing there right outside the doorway to Wise Fools, talking to some girls who were heading inside. I saw him shrug just as they disappeared inside and then he turned and saw me. His face lit up and you could almost see him change gears.

"Hey! Robby!" he said when he saw me. "My man!"

Chapman is one of those guys who knows everyone but still has no friends. He was born old, has always looked old, middle aged, though he couldn't have been much older than me. As usual he was wearing a dark jacket and turtleneck and had his shades pushed up into his thinning blond hair. The guy was always out for something, and was always a little shiny with sweat, feverish, his eyes bugging a little. No one knew what he did for a living, but he was always around the bars on Lincoln, always looking for something, asking for something. Most guys couldn't stand him. I didn't mind him so much; I just had no use for him.

The weird part was, Chapman always had girls. He never seemed to be romantically involved with them, but they were always around him. I think it was because he had no scruples about hitting on them. He had no scruples about hitting on anyone, and as I walked towards him I was pretty sure he was about to hit on me.

"Hey Chapman," I said.

"Hey, Robby, look," he said as he moved in front of me, getting between me and the door. "I got something for you and you're not going to believe this. Check it out."

He kind of herded me away from the doorway and along the side of the building to get away from the people who were going in and out. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a little white box, the kind jewelry comes in, and he held it close so no one could see. In the streetlights and shadows it was hard to make out what was inside it, some little figurine lying on white cotton, like a little man.

There was a squeal of feedback from the door of the bar, and then a shuddery glissando of guitar strings. J.B. Hutto was warming up.

"What the hell is that?" I asked him. I'd expected some cheap watch or something.

"It's a love charm, man. An honest-to-God mojo, just like in the songs." he said, enjoying my surprise. "Put all the women at your command. It's the real thing, man."

"What are you talking about?"

He held the box up for me to see, and I realized that it was a little tiny frog. Dead. Mummified, from the looks of it, all dried out. It was in an odd position, frozen like it had been climbing a ladder.

"What the hell?"

"It's a mojo, man," he said. "A love charm. Get you any girl you want, you know?"

I looked at his face to see if he was putting me on, but it was hard to tell. He always had this over-eager look, a hustler's grin.

"What the hell do I want with that? It's a fucking dead frog!"

"It's a mojo, asshole!" he said, covering the box up. "I'm offering it to you. Just fifty bucks. Get you any pussy you want, for real! You know how much these things are worth? I mean, this thing works. You go buy these from a conjure shop and they'll charge you plenty."

"Conjure shops?" I asked. "What is this, Chapman, you into voodoo or something? Where'd you get that thing?"

"Okay, thirty bucks." he said. "Just gimme thirty bucks and it's yours."

This was Chapman: always on the touch, always cornering you and wheedling money out of you, and he was relentless.

"I don't want the fucking thing." I said.

Chapman reached into the box and I realized he was going to take the frog out, probably shove it in my face. It was really creepy.

"Goin' down Louisiana, gonna get me a mojo hand…" he sang, picking up the little desiccated body.

"Fuck it! Here!" I said, reaching into my pocket and pulling out a twenty. It was the only way to get rid of him. "Get out of my face, Chapman."

He took the bill from me as soon as he saw it and pressed the box into my stomach.

"You're a hard fucker, Rob." he said. "This thing's worth a lot more than that."

I kept my hands away from it, but Chapman let go of the box and I had to grab it so it wouldn't fall. I felt a tingle in my arms when I touched it this time.

"Enjoy it, man." he said, folding the bill and putting it into his pocket as he backed up down the street. "You'll see. The little fucker works. It's the real thing. Mojo frog, man."

"Hey wait…"

But he was already gone, striding down the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets, his coat flapping.

I went to the curb so I could use the streetlight and opened the box. It was a little frog, maybe three, four inches long, and as the wind blew it rocked back and forth in its little cotton bed. He was all shriveled up with one froggy foot up and the other leg extended, and one tiny froggy arm reaching up, the other against his chest. The eyes were closed and the thing did look ancient. I could see the impossibly tiny bones in the feet, the dry slit of its wide mouth. I'd never seen anything that looked so absolutely dead. It really did look like it had come from a witch's cupboard.

There was a garbage can right there outside the bar, chained to a streetlight, and I could have thrown it away, but the whole thing was just so weird, I couldn't. I figured it might be good for a laugh later, or for a little Halloween creepiness, so I put the box in my pocket and went into the bar, paying my cover at the door just as the band was getting set.

Inside was all smoke and humid bar heat. There weren't as many costumes in here, which was good, because I hated to think of a living legend like J.B. Hutto having to play to a room full of drunks wearing George Bush and Hilary Clinton masks. There are some things that are just too creepy to contemplate.

Wise Fools is two big rooms: the bar is in one and the stage in another, and the room with the stage has tables crammed into it edge to edge, and the tables in turn have people crammed into them elbow to elbow. I could see right away that there were no empty seats so I found a place at the bar and ordered a beer.

There are a couple of tables in the bar room too, angled so you could just see the stage through the doorway, and there was a bunch of people at one of them. I was kind of idly looking around when my eyes caught the eyes of a girl at this table and there was that adrenaline jolt you feel when you look at someone only to find them already looking at you.

The contact only lasted an instant, then she let her eyes slide off me and turned them to the stage in the other room. I could tell, though, that she was still aware that I was watching her, and that she didn't seem to mind. She was one of the girls Chapman had been talking to when I'd first seen him outside, and the first word that came to mind when I noticed her was proud; the way she held her head, chin up, the way she endured my stare. She had dark, crimped hair that fell to her shoulders like a bell, and a broad, sensual mouth that had just a ghost of a smile on it, the satisfied smile of a girl who knows she looks good, and God knows she was entitled to wear it.

Just then the music started in the other room: a big crash and the sound of Hutto's guitar sliding up from a growl to an evil banshee squeal, amp cranked and howling. J.B. Hutto plays slide guitar like he's using a razor, and his sound has a keen cutting edge and an evil vibrato that borders on the obscene. It gives you the chills. He's an old guy, small and black, and his guitar is some huge garish thing from the sixties, with chrome pickups and mother of pearl inlay and neon finish that would be a joke in any one else's hands but his. But when he plays it just cuts you down the middle as neat as a surgical laser. He's one of the last of the old, self-taught Chicago blues men, and his stuff is full of rural Southern darkness and Big City evil, and tonight when he started playing I felt like I was right there with him, walking down by the crossroads with that dead mojo frog in my pocket. J.B would have understood in an instant.

The girl closed her eyes and jerked softly in her chair when the music started. The rhythm section chugged away like a southbound freight at full throttle and Hutto's nasty guitar sliced through the air above them beautiful and evil at the same time. It was the train of the night, the ghost train, and it was all aboard. I kept my eyes on the girl and every time she opened her eyes to look at the stage I knew she was checking me out with her peripheral vision. I knew without a doubt that she wanted me to come over and talk to her, but there was nothing I could do. The music was loud and all the chairs at her table were filled.

But, you know, I had that mojo frog in my pocket, and I told it to work for me. I dared that frog to show me his stuff, and when I was still halfway through my beer one of the guys sitting at her table got up, put on his coat, leaned over the table for one last laugh, and walked out the door waving.

Her eyes followed him out, then took the long way back, sweeping over the bar and resting on mine for a second, then went back to the stage. This time there was no doubt: I had my mojo working, my conquering frog mummy. I would have laughed if it hadn't been so preposterous.

I went over and asked if the seat was free and of course it was. She moved her purse for me and I sat down, introduced myself around and promptly forgot everyone's name just as quickly as they forgot mine. Except for hers. She was Jayde, and these were her friends from work, a bunch of Brians and Jasons and maybe a Pat or two.

"How'd your parents know your eyes were going to be green?" I asked her, shouting just a little. Because her eyes were green, even in the bar I could see they were green. It was a shameless and clumsy thing to say, but I wasn't quite in control of what I was saying, and she took it with a laugh. I told the frog he'd have to come up with better stuff than that.

I don't remember what she said, because really, I wasn't paying much attention to her words. All the really interesting conversation was happening on another level, body to body. She sat with one knee up against the side of the table, relaxed, pleased with the music and pleased with the company too, I guess. She had a wide, generous face with high cheekbones, and the symmetry extending down to her breasts too, likewise high and generous beneath her shirt and sweater, just as proud as the rest of her.

She wasn't beautiful in a classic, model-beautiful sense; but what she was was appealing, and sexy as hell. The way she held herself, chin up but relaxed, she just radiated sex; it came off her like smoke off a piece of dry ice. She wasn't a summertime beauty, she was more of an autumn princess, the kind of girl who was warm and ripe and whom you knew would be wonderful and welcoming in bed, a girl to spend the winter with. She was just who I was looking for.

She split her attention between me and the music, and that was about the best I could hope for since it was so loud in there. Whenever I wanted to say something I had to duck my face down near her ear, and every time I did that I could smell her: clean, just a little perfume. Perfect.

So we sat there and I shout-talked to her when I could, and when I finished my beer I asked her if I could buy her a drink. She smiled and nodded, and when I got up she said something to her friends and picked up her purse and coat and followed me to the bar.

The waitresses were busy and the bar crowded, so I found us a place way back in the far corner and tried to get the bartender's attention. It occurred to me suddenly that she was with me now, just like that, and in instant I realized that it had all come down to this: all this excitement and autumnal wildness had come down to this girl standing next to me at the bar, so close we had to touch. When I mentioned that I lived just down the block, she was very interested and wanted to hear all about it. I told her I'd show her. She said she'd like to see.

There was no doubt that something supernatural was going on here. It wasn't just that this girl had fallen into my lap; there was a real attraction between us, strong and undeniable, that feeling that fate had set us up. Frog or no frog—and I wasn't even thinking about that frog anymore—something wanted us to meet.

It was obvious to both of us and we left the bar without a glance back. Outside it was cold and gusting and the leaves were skittering along the pavement. We passed a whole family of wolfmen going the other way and they howled for us. She held her coat closed with one hand and took my arm with the other and pressed close against me, pressing the softness of her breast into my arm. We walked together like we'd been doing it all our lives, in perfect rhythm. She laughed at my jokes and paid me back in kind, and all the while we were wrapped up in that knowledge that something special was going on: that it could just be that we'd found that thing that people are all out looking for on this wild fall night.

I lived in a rear coach house that was reached by a passage going under the building in front, and the passage was locked with a gate. She stood shivering as I fumbled in my pockets for the keys, and my hand touched the box with the frog in it. I was going to tell her about it, make a joke about it, but I didn't think it was the right time to show her that I carried a mummified frog in my pocket, so I just fished out my keys.

"Cold?" I asked her.

"No," she lied, "Not really."

I opened the gate and looked at her shivering there and then I just took her. I turned to her and put my hands inside her coat where she was warm and slid my arms around her and she pressed against me all soft and yielding and kissed me, opening her mouth. Her breath was sweet and hot and her kiss was all surrender and eagerness, and we stood there like that surrounded in our own little bubble of animal heat in the chilly wind, as dizzy as the moon.

We broke the kiss and I took her hand and led her down the passageway and up the stairs to my place. As soon as I closed the door she dropped her purse and before our coats were off I had her in my arms, leaning her against the door and kissing her, drunk with her, high on her. She arched up towards me, pressing her tits and her hips against me, and I was instantly hard and didn't care if she knew it.

She was wild, maybe even wilder than me, and as I kissed her she grabbed my hair and held my head so she could bite and suck my lips, making little whimpering sounds in her throat. I slid my hand up under her sweater and she hissed as my cold hand made contact with her warm skin, but when I went to pull my hand away she covered it with her own to keep me there. She showed me how to touch her, how hard to squeeze her. She drew my fingers to her nipple and made me pinch, and she sobbed with heat and longing and ground her pussy against me, then put her arms back around my neck and held me to her while she went back to feeding on my lips.

When we at last broke the kiss we were both breathing like two fighters at the end of a round, looking at each other in amazement, wondering just what we'd gotten ourselves into and whether we were up to it. But there was no question of stopping, not now.

"Christ you're good!" I said.

It was stupid but I meant it. I love women who kiss like that, who tell you everything they're feeling with the way they kiss. I don't know if she heard me. She was almost panting. She pushed some hair back out of her face, let her coat fall from her shoulders and asked in a breathless voice, "Where's the bedroom?"

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