Sam and I trek a different journey today. South to the train tracks, around the bend, and then north along a parallel street. And more than anything, for whatever reason, I notice turtles. Stone turtles. Concrete. Lawn ornaments placed in the front yards and gardens—small ones and big ones the size of raccoons. There are the usual stone yard adornments—the bunnies, the nymph and her pale of water, a gnome. But turtles outnumber them all. This is not to say every house has stone knick-knacks in the yard, but it is, it seems, unusual to see all these turtles.
Sam pays no attention until we close in on one particular yard. But it’s not a turtle that catches her eye. It is something else.
My mother’s yard at our home in Pennsylvania when I was growing up was full of flowers. Mom did not take to tchotchke in her garden. The flowers are the stars, she would say. She wanted the simplicity of floral beauty. But my father? He wanted a backyard waterfall, one of those cascading kinds, the flowing water produced by small pump. He never got the waterfall. My mother never agreed. But she did okay a birdbath in the middle of one narrow section of the garden. Dad painted the bowl’s base aqua blue and he attached a plastic cardinal on the edge of the bath. Why, I’m not sure. It only scared off the real birds, and so the birdbath became a water bowl for the dog. Our family dog—a standard Rough Collie, named Sally—would quench her thirst and my father would refill the bath with the garden hose. This is not what my mother had in mind when she said yes to the birdbath, especially when Sally would trample her way through a patch of lilies. Still, my father loved that birdbath and my mother tolerated it.
In the yard where Sam’s interest has piqued, there is no birdbath. In fact, at this point in the walk I have not seen a single garden water basin. Maybe they’re out of style, an old school decoration. What has Sam’s strict attention is a very large cement frog, the size of a Cocker Spaniel puppy with big bulging eyes, sitting in a row of mulch under a bay window. It’s painted several colors, big and bold. Sam pulls back on the leash, and offers a low snarl that appears to signals concern or apprehension, but not fear.
All around the frog are foot-high metal mushrooms, like something from Alice in Wonderland. They line the walkway. And to the right, under a second bay window, are two turtles made of light-colored concrete. Yes, more turtles. But they mean nothing to Sam. It’s the frog that has every bit of her focus. Maybe it’s the frog’s size, its rather menacing stare, or its colorful design—certainly more colorful than the turtles, nymphs, or that one gnome.
For whatever reason, Sam’s encounter with the frog reminds me again of my father. The waterfall was one thing. But when it came to pets, Dad always said he wanted a monkey. He really did mean it. I’m not sure where he got the idea. It was certainly an unusual pet and far more uncommon than a frog. But it wasn’t going to happen. Dad loved our dogs and all the cats we had from time to time, but what in the world would he do with a rambunctious, high-energy monkey? Plus, where do you buy a monkey? And there’s the issue of throwing feces. Still, Dad wanted that monkey nearly as much as he wanted the waterfall.
“The frog is not real, you know?” I say to Sam.
She produces another low growl. But at this point, I’m not sure if Sam is considering an attack or just wants to investigate a possible playmate. Dogs do that sort of thing. They growl or snap at another animal, even a person, only to sniff them out and discover they are worthy of friendship not scorn.
Sam moves closer. She angles next to the frog and her tail stiffens, a sign of safety or protection. Then, in an instant, the tail begins to wag. Sam sticks her nose at the frog’s base as I try to keep most of her out of the bed of mulch.
“So, now you like the frog, huh?”
Sam looks at me, as if to gain my acceptance at her choice of a friend. She pulls on the leash and returns to sniffing. Tail still wagging.
“You can’t take it home,” I say.
There have been times on our walks that Sam will find a ball or a child’s toy in a yard and she’ll snatch it in her teeth, as if finders keepers works in the dog world. The desire for that ball or toy is strong enough to spark larceny. Sam isn’t trying to steal the frog, but it wouldn’t surprise me, given more leash, if she attempts it.
At first Sam had been unsure about the frog, then it was clear she had to have that big, gaudy law ornament. She simply wanted it. In the end, we all want what we want. Dad wanted a waterfall and a monkey. Sam wants a frog. And sometimes, like Dad and Sam, getting what it is we want is forever out of reach. Sometimes it’s the big things; sometimes it’s a silly frog in a garden. What we hope for is that somewhere along the line, here and there along the road, all of us are able to get at least what we need.
As I pull Sam out of the yard and we resume our walk, I’m not thinking about what it is I might want or need—not at this moment in time, not on this walk, and not in the bigger realm of life’s desires. But I do know what it is I don’t want. Neither a stone turtle nor a big cement frog.