An Army of Frogs | Mark Blickley

Image: Frog Concerto, Mark Blickley

Image: Bobbie Oliver

 “I don’t want to go to school today, Ma.  I don’t feel well.” 

            “You felt well enough to stay over Lamont’s house two hours past your curfew, playing video games.  Now get up and get ready for school.  And I mean now, Gregory John Burton!”

            The boy jumped out of bed.  He knew that when his mother called him by his full name instead of the familiar Greg, she could not be argued with and was primed for the yelling that would most certainly alert his father and bring him into the conflict.

            As he scuffed his way towards the bathroom he thought about explaining to his mother why he had distracted himself to the point of disobedience at Lamont’s last night.  They were both trying to erase the fear and anxiety of what was sure to be the most horrible day of their seven-year education the next morning.

            His father flung open the bathroom door, his waist wrapped in a purple towel as he delicately dragged a large comb through his thinning brown hair.  “It’s all yours. How’s it going, Sport?” 

            “Terrible,” answered Greg.  “This morning we’re going to cut up a frog.  Yuck.”

            His father paused his grooming to put a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry, Greg.  I remember not being too thrilled by the dissection my science teacher forced us to do, but he reminded us that we don’t kill the frogs, that they were already dead. And if we didn’t learn from their sacrifice, then their deaths were wasted. He also told us to pretend that we were surgeons cutting into a patient.  It turned out to be quite interesting.”

            “Yeah, well the only cutting I’d like to do is to cut class today. Dissection’s disgusting. I mean, there’s already enough violence in schools.”

            “I suppose you have a point, Greg.  I remember reading an article about that serial killer who cut up his victims and ate them.  What was his name?”

            “Jeffrey Dahmer?”

            Yeah, that’s him.  Right before the prison inmates killed him Dahmer gave an interview where he said that he became fascinated with blood and guts when his school gave him a knife and a dead animal to cut apart in biology class.”

            “Gee thanks, Dad.”  

            His father made a silly face, scooped him off the ground and tossed him into the air.  The squeals of delight coming from the boy temporarily made Greg forget about the brutal day he was about to endure until his sister Carol, hearing her brother’s screams of pleasure, trotted into the living room and demanded that her father also give her the chance to go airborne.

            Greg’s four and a half block walk to school took on the pace and enthusiasm of a killer being led down death row for a private sitting with an electrician.  As he turned the corner he saw Kostas, Selim, and Pascal climbing the steep steps leading to the school’s entrance.  When he shouted at them to wait up he thought that they, too, had a sickly look about them.  The four of them silently scuffed their way to the classroom.

            Everyone except Regina Boloff was inside and in their seat.  Greg didn’t think Regina would show up.  Every time Mrs. Worton would give a math or spelling test, Regina would wet her pants and cry.  When this happened, Mrs. Worton would send for the school nurse and Regina’s mother would come to pick her up and take her home.  The day afterwards Regina was always absent.

            As Greg settled himself behind his desk, he noticed Regina walking in.  This worried him.  Because of the terrible importance of the day, even Regina’s embarrassment couldn’t allow her to stay home, and she certainly had made a huge mess the day before during the math quiz.  But what really bothered Greg was that none of his classmates (or himself, for that matter) bothered to tease her.  The class looked as if their thoughts were a million miles away.

            Mrs. Worton strolled in and put on a big smile, even bigger than the smile she gave when the class presented her with a large, multi-colored paperweight, shaped like an egg, for Christmas.  Trumella  Austin’s father took the seven dollars and sixty-four cents the kids had raised and picked it out for the class from the stationary store he owned.  Greg thought it was a beauty.

            Behind his teacher’s smile Greg knew she was nervous too because she took roll call before the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.  Nothing was mentioned about what they had to do in a matter of hours. 

            For the first time all year the classroom hours sped by.  The clock read 10:30 when Mrs. Worton ordered them to lay down their pencils.  She then distributed  11×15 sheets of construction paper to each student and told them they were to use it to create a frog map that they would fill in as they dissected their frogs.  

     Greg raised his hand.  “What do you mean by a frog map?  I don’t understand.”

Mrs. Worton looked sternly at Greg. “Had you been turning in your homework regularly the past two weeks, Mr. Burton, you would have known that the handouts I gave out in class were to prep you for this project.”

“Why do we have to cut open a frog?” whined Regina.  “What’s the point?”

“The point,” said Mrs. Worton curtly, “is to satisfy national standards for sixth grade introduction to organs and organ systems.”

“I get all the info I need about organs and organ systems by sneaking on to my father’s Spice Channel website,” Hector whispered to Greg.  Both giggled.

“Hector, is there something you’d like to share with the rest of the class?” asked Mrs. Worton. 

 Hector shook his head.

“Very well, then.  As you cut away the layers of the frog’s anatomy, you will record your findings on your frog map.  Everyone draw an outline of a frog using the markers I placed on your desks before you arrived this morning.”

What followed was the greatest shock in a day already filled with much tension and apprehension.  The frogs that Mrs. Worton handed out to each student weren’t dead and pickled, but alive.

“Oh my God,” said Habib.

“Gross,” said Sophia.

“This is gonna be cool,” said Badra.

“Your frogs have all been anesthetized so they won’t feel any pain,” Mrs. Worton smiled.

“I bet,” muttered Greg.

Mrs. Worton heard Greg’s remark but chose to ignore it.   “The school paid extra so that we could observe the organ systems of a living frog,” she said rather proudly.   “Before we begin the actual cutting, please weigh your frog and measure its length from snout to vent and record this data in the lower right hand corner of your frog map.” 

Greg waved his arm. “What’s a vent?”

“Had you been studying like the rest of the class, you’d know that the vent is the cloaca.”

“The what?” shrugged Greg.

“It’s the ass, you ass,” whispered Badra. 

The moment Greg’s hand squeezed around his frog and felt it inhaling and exhaling, he wanted to run outside and set it free instead of lining up in the back of the classroom, waiting his turn to use the scale.  But he figured what would the point of freeing it be?  There aren’t any ponds around here.  It would just get squashed by a car or some punk would shove a firecracker down its throat.

After all the students measured and weighed their frogs and returned to their desks, Mrs. Worton pulled her desk to the center of the room to talk them through the surgery while slicing up her very own frog.  “Our first step will be to decapitate the frog with your special dissection scissors and then pith its spinal cord with the pithing needle on your tray.  The frog will twitch.  Pithing greatly reduces the incidence and intensity of muscle contractions, thus simplifying the dissection.”

Most of the class scrunched their faces with revulsion as they followed Mrs. Worton’s commands.  

“As you hold the frog’s head, “ continued Mrs. Worton, “squeeze it with your thumb and index finger to open its mouth for easier insertion of the scissors into the mouth.  Hold your frog against the tray with your palm as it may twitch while you are decapitating it.”

Greg did as he was told and placed the lower scissor blade inside his frog’s mouth while the outer blade rested on the back of the frog’s head.  Without applying much force, he was surprised how quickly the head was severed from the body.  His frog twitched and contorted so violently that it jerked out of his hand and fell to the floor, where it flopped about like an awkward break-dancer trying to spin into a finale.

Mrs. Worton hurried over, responding to the many shrieks of disgust surrounding Greg’s desk.  “Didn’t I tell you to pith your frog?” she asked.

Greg just stared at her as she picked up his headless frog and dropped it onto his tray.  It continued to twitch.  She handed him a pair of forceps and ordered him to lift the skin of the abdomen with them before cutting into the skin, from left to right.  Greg made an incision with his dissecting scissors into the lower abdomen and then cut along the sides of the frog to make a flap of the skin and abdominal musculature.  He then lifted the flap back and cut it off, exposing the internal organs that his teacher called the viscera. The exposed innards of the frog were such an appalling sight that it made Greg want to heave his breakfast.

“Now cut off the intestine and urine duct from the hip to free the viscera from the body,” said Mrs. Worton.  “Be careful not to touch the nerve when cutting.”

Many nerves were touched in the classroom, and most of them belonged to the students.  As he snipped through muscle fascia, hemostats, and the sciatic nerve of his frog, Greg felt terrible.  He thought about the trauma he underwent weeks earlier, the day he had to get a stupid TB test. And that was simply a prick of his skin while his frog, who was alive and breathing when he first held him, was now dead and Greg was ordered to remove its skin because Mrs. Worton said the skin represented one of the ten body systems a frog needs in order to survive. One of the ten body systems they needed to expose and explore.  She called the skin the Integumentary System, but flaying the frog proved too much for Greg.  He lay down his scalpel and put a paper towel over his torn, mutilated amphibian. 

“Hey, Mrs. Worton,” said Victor.  “What are gonna do we do with all of these frogs after we’re done?”

“Victor, do you know what you call a group of frogs?”

Victor shrugged.” What do you mean?”

Mrs. Worton smiled.  “Well, a group of fish is called a school.  A group of geese are called a gaggle.  A group of birds are called a flock.  A group of horses are called a herd.  But what do you call a group of frogs?”

“Butchered,” muttered Greg. 

Mrs. Worton once again ignored Greg’s comment.  “A group of frogs are called an army. An army of frogs.” 


Mark Blickley  is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center whose most recent book is a text-based art collaboration with fine arts photographer Amy Bassin, ‘Dream Streams.’ (Clare Songbirds Publishing House).

speaking in bootongue – mark blickley and amy bassin

hourglass

New York fine arts photographer Amy Bassin and writer Mark Blickley work together on text based art collaborations and videos. Their text based art collaboration, ‘Dream Streams’, was featured as an art installation at the 5th Annual NYC Poetry Festival Their video, ‘Speaking In Bootongue,’ was selected for the London Experimental Film Festival. They published a text based art chapbook,’Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes From the Underground'(Moria Books, Chicago). Bassin is co-founder of the international artists cooperative, Urban Dialogues. Blickley is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center. Their text based art book, ‘Dream Streams, will be published in 2019 by Clare Songbird Publishing House. 

han’s solo – mark blickley and keith goldstein

Keith Goldstein - Acadia NP.jpg

sbgs cowskull
Editor’s note: the following piece is an ekphrasis, a rhetorical exercise where usually an artist bases a piece of writing off of an image. In this case, Mark Blickley based the following story off of Keith Goldstein’s image above, a picture of his son at Acadia National Park.

sbgs cowskull

I’ve had this recurring Bridge Dream for nearly fifteen years. It first appeared one night after being exhausted by cram studying for my Bar Mitzvah. In this initial fantasy I was a swaddled infant left on the very beginning of a long and twisting walkway through a vibrant yet desolate forest. I was crying and there was blood from my bris seeping through the fabric covering my groin. We don’t need to dig Freud up from his grave to figure out I was about to undergo a ritual of manhood, so I must’ve been thinking about the genital mutilation that first signaled my acceptance into the tribe. What’s quite disturbing about this recurring dream as it appears today is that after fourteen years of experiencing it, I’ve only move forward incrementally from the bloody infant that was first placed on this forest path, into a six year old boy that balks at moving forward. In the real world I’m about to turned twenty-eight.

My name’s Han because my parents are both Star Wars freaks and the worship of this film series is the only real religion practiced in my household. They obviously were not the only disciples. When I was in Pre-K, there was another boy named Han as well as a girl named Leia.

What’s strange about my abandoned boy at the bridge recurring dream is that it’s always just a prologue to whatever else I’ll be dreaming that night. This winding walkway always introduces whatever anxious or peaceful visions my brain has decided to focus on that night—nightmare, erotic ecstasy, exciting adventures, idyllic beauty.

These days in my dream I am a first-grader who is really hesitant about moving forward, but I also see it as my feet turning into the classic ballet 4th position. My mother taught ballet for years so perhaps my foot position on the bridge is a nod to her. Once again I don’t need to disinter Freud to figure out this bridge snakes into a representation of my life’s journey. By the way, did you know that babies double their birth size by age five months? Yet in my recurring dream I remained a crying, bleeding infant for years —no physical growth, no emotional growth.

I’m a bit confused about relationships with women. My testosterone tells me to be more aggressive and not to feel so shy and unworthy. I’m always terrified of saying the wrong thing. In High School I didn’t really have a girlfriend because I always hung out within this circle of friends that were both males and females. Most activities were communal, not individual dates. Recently I joined a dating app called Bumble. On Bumble only women can initiate first contact which I like because it reduces the stress of rejection, yet I’ve been registered on this app for five months and have yet to receive a single hit.

I’m presently undergoing E.M.D.R. (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy, which also includes hand tapping and listening to ambient sounds, like ocean waves, via headphones that seesaw these sounds from ear to ear to promote a kind of aural hypnosis. One of the side effects of this treatment is that it can cause vivid, realistic dreams, but my recurring dream happened years before I entered therapy. My therapist insists I keep a journal between sessions in order to maintain the session’s progress she insists is occurring.

My shrink Martha works for the V.A. but please don’t think I’m some sort of Veteran war hero suffering from PTSD. I never even enlisted in the War Against Christmas, yet I’ve never known a world without suicide bombings, school shootings and acts of terrorism that take place in my backyard, not in some distant land. Martha is also an ordained Lutheran pastor but she never mentions God in any of our sessions.

I tell Martha I’m so sick of reading/hearing reasons why Millennials can’t grow up. My shrink calls it a “First World” problem not unique to young men my age. I am depressed and anxious all the time but don’t know why. I am always smiling and laughing at jokes I don’t think are funny so people won’t discover how unhappy I am. I feel like I’m faking everything. Being an adult to me means not doing things you enjoy doing, yet that’s nuts because my parents still act like kids at Star Wars Conventions.

Why am I so miserable? I had everything I was supposed to need while growing up— emotional and financial security, a good education and now I have a more than decent paying job. I do feel guilty that they are so many less fortunate than me and know it is unmanly to be so constantly sad. Every day there’s somebody crying out what privileged assholes we Millennials are, so I always feel pressured to pretend I’m happy.

My shrink says I should spend less time always surrounding myself with people and more time being alone, even if it means being bored at first. But I can’t relax by myself. I tried all different kinds of things, but I can’t slow down my goddamn anxious thoughts. I’ve tried drugs, porn, video games and even different kinds of meditation—Zen Meditation with mindfulness on breathing and intentionally focusing on the moment. Then I did Metta meditation to focus on a loving kindness towards myself as well as empathy for other people. In my final workshop I studied Sufi mediation to try to achieve mystical union with a Supreme Being.

In every class and workshop I’ve taken, I seem to be the only one who can’t obtain this metaphysical knowledge and peace. I would often comfort myself in class by thinking my fellow students are just bullshitting their enlightenment to try to make me feel like shit—but thoughts like that defeat the entire purpose of meditation, which is to get to know myself and pull away from the outside world to focus on my inner world, instead of blaming everyone else for my failure. Do you understand how fucked up a person I am? Hell, I even get sad deleting old tweets because it feels like I’m flushing away a big part of who I was and who I am.

Last month Martha suggested I try using a weighted blanket that applies deep pressure touch. She says it simulates the feeling of being comforted, like a swaddled baby, and is supposed to help my insomnia and anxiety. So instead of fighting my anxieties like a real man, I retreat into acting like a fucking baby again, all tucked inside my crib beneath a blanket with 30 pounds of pellets sewn into it. So far it hasn’t worked.

When I ask Martha how she arrives at the concept of what exactly my emotional age is, she turns the question back on me and asks what do I believe is my emotional age? I tell her I don’t know anything except first my dick is snipped at birth and then as I advance in life I have my balls constantly broken by social proclamations that I MUST BE SUCCESSFUL!

I worry I’ll never live up to my own expectations. I grew up being told I could be anything I wanted to be, but I’m coming to the realization that I’m not as smart, talented or special as I thought I was and that fuels an obsession with having to succeed. My friends and I seem to be growing up poorer than our parents. My Mom and Dad can afford to go to Star Wars conventions all over the world but my important travel plans are still handcuffed by student loans.

I get incredibly stressed over not being able to find a WiFi spot, forgetting passwords to online accounts, the buffering sign when I’m streaming online—it’s like taunting me that my life is going in circles, like the areola of a maternal tit. I stress when unable to find my T.V. remote just as my favorite Netflix show is starting.

Why am I unable to advance past the age of six in my recurring dream? Is it because I’m a victim of helicopter parenting? During my childhood my Mom and Dad hovered over every experience and problem I had growing up. Cell phones are the longest umbilical cords in the world. I was taught to be afraid of strangers, playing sports, sexual contact. Is that why they claim we Millennials act more like children than adults?

This outburst of self-pity is very tiring, so I’m going to disappear under my state of the art weighted blanket and hope tonight is the night it crushes my recurring dream of being a child stranded on a spooky bridge inside a dying, primeval forest. And if my heavy blankie is unable to extinguish the dream, perhaps when I wake up I will have at least gained a year of emotional age so I will be a seven year old boy on that walkway, just three quarters away from achieving my true age of twenty-eight.

sbgs cowskull

Mark Blickley is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild and PEN American Center as well as the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Scholarship Award for Drama. He is the author of Sacred Misfits (Red Hen Press), Weathered Reports: Trump Surrogate Quotes from the Underground (Moira Books) and the forthcoming text based art book, Dream Streams (Clare Songbirds Publishing). His video, Widow’s Peek: The Kiss of Death, was selected to the 2018 International Experimental Film Festival in Bilbao, Spain. He is a 2018 Audie Award Finalist for his contribution to the original audio book, Nevertheless We Persisted. 

Keith Goldstein is a freelance photographer and photo editor in New York City.  Keith began exhibiting his photography since the1980’s. His work has appeared in many publications including  ABC News Australia, Now Public, Flak Magazine, JPEG Magazine, Time. His work is included various private collections and in the Erie Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and the S.K. Neuman Culture Center, Brno, Czechoslovakia. Website