My key was in the door when I heard the voice behind me.
“Do you have a minute?” it said.
A woman had materialized in my driveway, 40-ish, with short brown hair that curved in and forward at her neck and framed her face in a sort of oval. She was holding a large cardboard box. She wasn’t unattractive, but she wasn’t especially attractive either, and I was using this information to decide whether I had a minute. She set the box down. A light rain began to fall.
“Actually I was just leaving,” I lied.
“Oh!” she said, with either real surprise or mock surprise. “I thought I just saw you pull in.” She nodded toward my car. For all I knew she had felt the hood to see if it was warm.
“I came back to get something.” Lie two.
I thought she’d take the hint and leave, but she stood there looking at me and I looked at her and soon it got uncomfortable.
“What’s in the box?” I guessed Bibles.
“My book,” the woman said. This didn’t entirely rule out Bibles.
“A book I wrote. It’s a novel.” She opened the box and pulled out a hardback book with a plain blue cover and a title in white letters I couldn’t make out. “I’m trying to sell it.”
“Door to door?”
She smiled a smile that looked forced. “I published it myself. So yes.”
“Crazy way to sell books.”
“Are you a reader?”
No, I’m illiterate. “Yeah. I mean, I read.”
No, food labels. “Yes, books.”
“Wonderful! A lot of people don’t. Would you like to buy one?” She thrust the book toward me and I took it.
“Tadpoles, by Amanda Boom. Amanda Boom—great name. You should have made it bigger on the cover.”
“It’s pronounced Boam,” she said. “It’s Dutch.”
“It’s really about tadpoles?”
“They’re a metaphor.”
“That’s why you buy the book,” she said. She grinned, and it did something to her face that made her more attractive. It wasn’t until then that I realized she had looked sad before. The rain was picking up. “Your books are getting wet. Do you want to come in for a minute, Amanda Boom?”
“Boam. Weren’t you just leaving?”
Now she was making fun of me. She was sharp, Amanda Boom was. Sharper than she looked.
“Do you have any coffee?” she said as we entered my living room. I went to the kitchen and made a pot. When I came back with it she was looking at a picture on the mantel.
“Your wife and daughter?” she said.
I wasn’t sure how to answer. It was Sophie, my daughter, with Anne, my wife, on a beach in Maine at sunset. But Anne and I were in day twenty-seven of a trial separation that was feeling less and less like a trial. I’d put the other pictures of her away. Leaving that one out was like saving a starter cell, something to clone the marriage back on to if it came to that. “Yes,” I said, not wanting to get into it.
“What are their names?”
“Sophie, she’s my daughter. And Anne.”
“Well, George, you have a beautiful family.”
I directed her to the couch and sat in a chair opposite. “So. Your tadpoles.”
“They represent loss.”
It was a ridiculous story. There’s a woman who every spring goes into this wealthy neighborhood where people have backyard pools. In the winter the pools are covered with tarps, and in spring frogs breed in the rainwater that collects there. Except when they take off the tarps, it kills them. So before they open their pools, this woman goes around and rescues the tadpoles with a net and takes them home in jars.
“Some become frogs,” she said. “But most die.”
“You ever know anybody who did this?” I asked. “Collect tadpoles from swimming pools?”
“No. It’s a novel. It’s fiction.”
“It’s just… You just don’t say, let’s have this woman who collects tadpoles from swimming pools. That has to come from someplace. Where in the world do you get an idea like that?”
“In your head. You make it up.” I thought I heard an edge in her voice.
“Crazy. That’s what the people say about the woman. She shows up year after year, a sign of spring, like dandelions or onion grass, and starts collecting. They talk about her, but no one talks to her, not really. No one bothers to learn her story. To them she’s just the tadpole woman. ‘Has the tadpole woman been to your pool yet?’ Like that, like she’s their tadpole woman, a quirky little break from their bland suburban routine. No one even knows her name.”
“What is her name?”
“You never find out. She’s sort of an Everyman.”
“But every woman doesn’t collect frogs.”
“Tadpoles,” she corrected. “And everyone deals with loss. This is just her way of doing it.”
There was a car crash, she explained. The woman was driving, and someone ran a stoplight. It isn’t clear whose fault it was, but her young daughter is killed. Her husband blames her and the marriage falls apart. The neighbors feel sorry for her at first, but then start looking at her differently. She feels their scorn. She blames herself. She moves to a new town where no one knows what happened. The tadpoles become a way to cope with guilt. The whole thing was far-fetched, but I have to give her credit—she told the story pretty well. I thought she was going to cry when she described the car crash.
“Do you have kids?” I asked.
“It’s not about me.” That edge in her voice was back.
“It just seemed like you’d need to have a kid to know…”
“What it feels like to lose one? Is that really so hard to imagine? So she’s carrying around this secret. It’s too painful to tell people what happened, but it’s almost as painful to keep it to herself. And she doesn’t trust herself around people. The loss is devastating. The pain won’t stop. Who she was is gone, so she has to figure out who she is now, this new person that feels so disconnected from the old one.”
“I get it. Like tadpoles.”
“Exactly. On the verge of frog-hood. But totally oblivious to how their lives are about to change.”
“It’s like… what’s that word for when something turns into something else?”
“Right. Metamorphosis. You should have called it that.”
“Taken,” she said.
When Anne said she wanted to separate, I was in shock. Twenty-one years of marriage and she could just walk away? She said she wasn’t “happy” anymore, and with Sophie away at college, she wanted to see if she felt happier apart. Happy. Jesus. Happy wasn’t something I thought a whole lot about.
That first night, after she told me she wanted to separate, she went to sleep in the guest bedroom. Twenty-one years—that’s like 7,000 nights—and it was the first time that had happened. So I’m lying alone in our king bed, staring at the ceiling. And what do I think about? The impossibility of life without Anne? This feeling that a piece of me just fell off? No. Logistics. Where will I live? What will I eat? What furniture will I need? House or apartment or condo? Rent or buy? Ikea or Ethan Allen? And the weird thing—would Anne approve? My wife is leaving me and I’m worried about reconstructing a life that she would endorse. But then the next day she said she’d move out, and she rented an apartment about a mile from here. Her car’s never there, though. I think she’s seeing someone else. Maybe she has been for a while.
“And that’s it? She lives out her life saving tadpoles?”
“Something happens to her.”
“That’s why you buy the book.”
“She falls in and drowns.”
Amanda Boom laughed, and her face did that thing again. I liked when it did that. I liked that I made it do that.
“That would make it a short story,” she said.
“She kisses one of her frogs and it turns into a prince.”
She kept laughing. “Now it’s a fairy tale.”
More laughter. This was fun. I guess I felt “happy.” So I kept going. “She has an affair with a neighbor.”
This popped the whole laughter bubble. “Men always say that,” she said.
Men always say that. It was something Anne would say. Then I’d react, and then she’d react, and it would become this thing, and we wouldn’t speak to each other for a week. If Anne were here, she and Amanda would now be partners in a little anti-George coalition.
“Have a lot of men bought your book? It doesn’t seem like much of a guy’s book.”
“And what tips the balance? What makes them decide to buy it?”
“Is there any more coffee?”
I got up to get the coffee and gave her a refill. She took a sip and then sat staring at the cup in her lap. Finally she looked up. “One man asked me if I would have sex with him.”
She blushed when she said it, but looked me right in the eye, challenging me to something. I was confused. Was she saying, All men are basically pigs, and don’t I agree? Or was it some kind of come-on? It had been a very long time since I’d been on the receiving end of a come-on, so it was hard to tell. So now I’m sitting here looking at Amanda Boom and thinking about sex, thinking about sex with her. And then it happens again—I start wondering what Anne would think. Would she be jealous? Impressed? Would it make her want to come back? What would she think of Amanda Boom? It seems crazy to think about it that way, but I couldn’t help it.
“And did you?”
“Have sex with him?”
“What do you think?” she said.
“It’s an interesting marketing strategy.” I was suddenly really uncomfortable, and I tried to mask it by sounding clever. “Unorthodox, but you can’t deny its potential, and it would give you an edge on Amazon. Kind of extreme, though, just to sell a book.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Yes what? Yes it’s extreme?”
“Yes, I had sex with him.”
I felt like I was being led into another story. Like the woman in my driveway and the book and the tadpoles and the car crash and the dead daughter were all just so many breadcrumbs to take me to this other place that had something to do with this real woman sitting in my living room, whose name may or may not be Amanda Boom, who may or may not be inviting me to have sex with her, and who may or may not be the author of the book sitting on the coffee table in the space between my chair and her couch. I picked up the book and opened it, almost expecting the pages to be blank. But there were words there, just like with anybody else’s book.
“Not then, though,” she said. “I told him he had to buy the book and read it first. I said I’d come back in a week to see if he had.”
“And he believed you?”
“I guess it was worth $15.00 to see.”
“But you came back.”
“For $15.00. There’s a word for that, you know.” I was angry. Not because I was judging her. I was angry because I was jealous.
“It wasn’t that simple.”
“How’d you even know he read it? Did you give him a test?”
“More like a quiz.”
“And he passed.”
“You’re full of surprises, Amanda Boom.”
She shrugged, but didn’t look away.
“What difference did it make? Him reading the book?”
“He paid attention to my story. For three hundred and twenty-nine pages.”
“To the frog lady’s story.”
Another shrug. “It made him no longer a stranger.”
“Because you don’t sleep with strangers. At least not for $15.00.” I wanted her to react to that, but she didn’t. “Was it worth it?”
One more shrug, then a slight smile. But she didn’t answer.
“What did you get out of it?”
“Ha,” I said. “No, you got laid. Did you see him again?”
She shook her head.
“On to other sales opportunities? Is this like a standard offer you make? ‘Now, for a limited time only, buy one book and screw the author for free’?”
“Anne left you, didn’t she?”
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s mail forwarded to her on the table next to the door.”
“She’s away on a business trip.”
“To a place in the same zip code?”
I wanted Amanda Boom to leave. “We’re separated. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“You don’t know what’s next, and you’re not even sure you want to find out. But something’s next, George. Something’s always next. You could get depressed and suicidal. You could start collecting tadpoles. You could invite a strange woman into your house.”
Neither of us said anything for a while. I couldn’t look at her, so I stared at the book.
“So what happens now?” I said.
“Maybe you turn the page.”
I laughed. “You win. I guess I will buy your book, Amanda Boom.”
“Right. Will there be a sequel?”
Richard Bader makes his living writing and consulting for nonprofit organizations. Fiction is a fairly new interest. He would love to be called a ‘young’ writer, but is afraid that ship has sailed. So he’ll settle for ‘new’ writer, or, with luck, ‘emerging.’ This is his second piece of published fiction.
Read our interview with Richard here.