Mr. Phineas Frog lamented daily the name he’d been given. It was bad enough to have a family name like Frog, but to alliterate the embarrassment was all too much for his sensitive constitution. Still, Mr. Frog had navigated the trial of youth with his characteristic dull wit and rash naiveté, continually skirting disaster as do those drunkards who wander from the wreck unscathed. For this was Mr. Frog’s lot in life, to drink. And drink he did.
“Bitter is better” he would often charge as the India Pale Ale presented crisp on his tongue, or the syrupy Stout rolled across his palate. Mr. Frog cared not for the single-malt, potato-clear, grain-mash intoxicants designed to feign aristocratic airs while numbing the soul, nor the rotten-grape swill that snobby sophisticates convince themselves is no more deadly than an art exhibit or condescending glance toward the impoverished.
A little Brandy, however, that he kept close, just in case.
No, Mr. Frog made no pretenses about his daily consumption, and wore a red beak unashamedly upon his rosy, pocked face. His day always began at six sharp, and he arrived, neatly pressed, at the bank promptly at eight. By the end of the day, his suit was just a little wrinkled, his tie just a little crooked, and his hair decidedly more mussed than when he’d arrived. He was careful to never have a drink during work hours, though a quick morning schnapps and a tall brew with lunch helped to keep the shakes at bay. But after work, this was his time to indulge, and his favorite watering hole was called The Bearded Stork, a dusty, poorly-lit pub where being distinguished meant that you weren’t sloshed.
So on this chilly winter day, like so many before, Mr. Phineas Frog teetered up to the bar, rested his cane in the groove and surveyed the soggy clientele. None but long faces and distant stares. Just how he liked it.
“The usual, Mr. Frog?” asked Jimmy the judge’s son who, when not acting as Fate’s proctor, pulled suds on the side.
“Indeed, my boy, indeed,” smiled Mr. Frog with a slight tip of the hat, rubbing his hands together as the first golden pint rolled into an eager glass. “My heavens, how cold it’s been,” he remarked.
“Yes sir, Mr. Frog,” Jimmy nodded, fermented foam cascading to the pitted bar counter. “The river’s been frozen over for nearly a month, and it’s only December.”
Mr. Frog’s hand trembled slightly as he took a satisfying draught, the frothy white head clinging to the afternoon stubble beneath his nose. He glowed as the elixir began its magic, quieting the dull thud in his head and restoring some warmth to his extremities. Watching as the old man’s spirits lightened, young Jimmy commented, “Good for the nerves, eh Mr. Frog?”
Phineas nodded. “That it is, my boy, that it is. The good Lord gave us this medicine to ease the hardships of life,” he preached cheerily, peering through his glass at the youth, then taking another gulp. “It’s only proper that we show the respect it’s due, by appreciating His mercies.” He drained the glass and Jimmy dutifully produced another, which was instantly half empty in the hands of the old banker.
Feeling his strength return, Mr. Frog lit a fat cigar and swiveled to enjoy the snowy afternoon from the increasingly cozy confines of The Bearded Stork. A thin woman in a high-collared wool coat bustled past the window, followed not-so-closely by two rowdy children exaggerating their struggle through the now ankle-high drifts. Mr. Frog was glad for the Lord’s brew in his belly, for it worked daily not only to restore him to health but to remind him that he was satisfied with his life as a bachelor. Sometimes, when the drudgery of the bank began to drill at his fortitude, in those dark hours between the lunch brew and his after-work reward, his mind would turn to feelings of regret, if not longing. Longing for another with whom to report the travails of the day, longing for the salve of one soft caress to ease his aching heart.
If only he’d not succumbed to the drink, he would rue. If only he had not followed his father’s example, drinking away the loneliness after his mother’s death. Phineas blamed himself for his own birth – his first mistake, and his mother’s last. When his father was sober, he would blame Phineas for killing her in childbirth, and when he was drunk, he would beat him for it. But now, after his third pint was nearly all in, he could see that maybe it was best this way, that maybe he would only kill a wife the way he’d killed his father’s.
But on to a brighter topic, mused Mr. Frog, gladly accepting an especially dark brew Jimmy recommended. Ah, bitter! his tongue reported gleefully. His head was light and his heart was floating on a sea of hops. Then he remembered.
“Jimmy, come over here lad,” he beckoned softly.
“Yes sir, Mr. Frog?”
Phineas pulled himself close to the boy and whispered. “Did I come in here yesterday, and did I spend a twenty-dollar bill?”
“Why yes you did, Mr. Frog.” Jimmy confirmed.
Phineas fell back in to his seat with a relieved exhale. “Oh, thank heavens… I thought I’d lost it!”
Twenty dollars was two days’ wages for most of the people in the pub, and though it could purchase an exorbitant amount of alcohol, Mr. Frog was always generous with his friends, or if not friends then fellow drunks, so it certainly had gone to good use.
“Thank you for the generous tip as well, sir,” Jimmy smiled, and continued sweeping behind the counter. It made Phineas smile to think that he’d brightened a few days. Draining the dark brew and tapping his cane for another, he sipped and drifted, his mind as calm as the gentle snowfall outside. Suddenly, the door to the pub burst open and the bundled-up woman from a few minutes ago charged in, a firm grip on a small boy, the other hand clenched in a red fist. The boy was weeping loudly.
“Sir!” she cried to Jimmy, rushing over to the counter. “Do you have a telephone?” She was frantic.
“Yes we do ma’am, a dandy of a telephone too,” he replied. He lifted the cradled earpiece and tapped the switch hook. He shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am, there’s no operator. Must be the storm.”
“Oh no, this is terrible! I’ve lost my daughter,” she sobbed. “She had gotten away from me for a moment, in the snow, and I think she’s tumbled down an embankment!” She trembled as she glanced around the pub at the few hopeless drunks whom she’d petitioned for help. The chorus of inebriated faces were blank, slow to process the situation and even slower to recommend a solution. Even Jimmy, sober as a priest on Sunday, stood scratching his head.
Perhaps it was the emboldened state the dark brews had afforded, or the stark lack of any excitement in his life, but Mr. Frog decided to seize the moment. He rose majestically from his bar stool, stumbling for a moment, then catching his balance and straightening his suit.
“Ma’am.” His voice was more confident than it had ever been, and he surprised himself with its command. “I will find your daughter, and deliver her safely to you, post haste!” He secured his scarf and bowed deeply, tapped his hat down and barreled out of the pub into the snowfall.
He blinked for a moment in the dying sunlight, surveying the empty streets, when the world started spinning uncontrollably, and with a catastrophic thud he lurched face-first into a snow drift. Phineas Frog’s enthusiasm, as well as the six pints he’d savored, had gotten the better of him, and for all of the emboldening the drink will offer he’d forgotten that it will take away the same amount in equilibrium. Rolling over, he took a moment to enjoy the fortunate refreshment of a face full of snow. He felt his senses returning, and as the streetlamp above him stopped spinning he recovered his wits enough to focus on the woman peering down at him. He sat up.
“Yes ma’am,” he announced, “I seem to have slipped on this very icy walkway.” The woman raised her eyebrows, not seeing a single patch of ice herself. Mr. Frog slowly got to his feet and stared for a moment at the woman. She wasn’t old, but age had crept up on her, her dark eyes deep and wise, the perfect compliment to her thin nose and sculpted cheekbones. Snow was gathering on the wisps of hair that floated around her ivory face and Phineas thought that he’d never seen so beautiful a person in his whole life. Adrenalin coursed through him as never before, and he couldn’t tell whether it was the drink or the excitement of pure beauty that inspired him, but it didn’t matter. Phineas could not fail. Today, he would be a hero.
The woman broke what was becoming an awkward silence and the drunken stranger’s gaze suddenly became an odd longing. “The bartender says he will keep trying the phone, and another man from the pub said he would fetch the police. But it may take a while.” She was whimpering, and the boy who clung to her coat was staring blankly across the street at the steep embankment that ended at the river.
Feeling in full control of his faculties, Phineas knelt down. “Son, where did your sister go?”
The boy pointed at the embankment, and by its gradation it was clear that Phineas would need to have all of his wits about him. He shook his head violently and made two or three small hops to try to stave off the effects of the alcohol, which for the first time in his life he wished weren’t present. Still a little soused, but good enough, he figured.
“Ok then, off we go!” He dashed across the street as quickly as one can dash in rather deep snow, followed closely by the woman and her son. When he got to the edge of the embankment, he peered over at the trough that had been carved by the children’s tumble into the grey woods below. Never being one who valued over-planning, Mr. Frog decided his best course of action was to follow the trail down… maybe the girl was simply at the bottom, he mused. God forbid she’d gone near the lake, though.
He made another bow, this time deeper than before and even more majestic. “Ma’am, young master, I will return with the girl you’ve lost. Please prepare for a joyous reunion.” The woman held her son as Phineas gingerly toed the steep slope’s crest, then backed up. He approached again, cautiously, and tapped his foot over the edge a second time, inching forward, his right leg still firmly planted on the level ground. But as fate would have it his left foot slipped once, twice, and shot from under him like a hound giving chase. With a loud croak, Phineas Frog tumbled awkwardly down the embankment, headfirst into the pines.
“Oh my, I’ve really done it now!” he moaned, dizzy from his tumble and rubbing his shins. He’d managed to avoid any real harm, quite an accomplishment for one who’d just careened head first through brush and pine and skidded to a stop a few feet shy of a frozen creek. He tried to stand but found himself too disoriented from his fall, and still drunk. Mr. Frog sat on a log and rubbed his temples. If only he’d not been so drunk, he wouldn’t have fallen, he lamented. Now he couldn’t even move, let alone find the missing girl. They’d probably have to send someone to save him! He pulled out his leather-bound flask and fumbled with the cap. The brandied bottle was almost on his lips when a rustling behind him gave him pause.
“Are you ok, Mr. Frog?” the sweet voice of a young girl called from the brush. “I watched you tumble down the hill and came as fast as I could.”
Phineas couldn’t believe his eyes, and wondered if he was still so intoxicated that he was imagining that the girl he’d come looking for had just appeared before him. “My word, do my eyes deceive me? Is that you little girl? I’ve come on behalf of your mother to rescue you!”
“My name is Anna, sir,” she replied curtly, “and I came down here to be alone thank you.” She sat next to him on the log and stared at the creek.
Mr. Frog capped his flask. “And why would you come down here all alone on a frightfully snowy day like this? Your mother is quite worried about you.”
Anna sighed. “I’m going to run away. There’s lots of work in the east, in New York. I’ll go there and get a job sewing. I’m a good seamstress, that’s what mother says.”
“Young lady you’re certainly not of working age!” Mr. Frog gasped. “You’re barely more than ten!”
“I’m eleven Mr. Frog,” Anna boasted, “and I don’t have much of a choice. Mother needs money. Percy’s too little to work and Mother spends all her time washing and cleaning for the rich people downtown. But it’s not enough. She says the bank is coming for our house.”
Phineas shook his head. “That’s simply not true, Anna. The bank has no intention of taking your house. I work for the bank and I haven’t heard anything about it.”
“A man came by today and said that Mother hadn’t paid enough,” she explained. “Mother told him that she gave them all she had, that she had to get food from the church because she didn’t have any more money left. But the man didn’t care, and told her that we had to leave our house by the end of the week.”
Mr. Frog nodded. “That certainly sounds like something a bank would do.”
“So that’s why I had to run away to get some money. I can’t let mother and Percy be homeless!”
“Where’s your father, Anna?” he questioned.
“He’s dead,” she sighed. “He died last year from an accident in the coal mine. Mother said it’s because they didn’t have the proper equipment, and that the owner of the mine was too greedy to spend a little extra to make sure his workers were safe. Now she cries a lot. She never used to cry before daddy died.” The little girl sniffed and wiped away a tear. “Why is money more important than people, Mr. Frog?”
Phineas felt a heat stirring within him. It was a heat not of alcohol nor of fear, it was a heat of passion, of anger. He was, for the first time in a long time, beginning to feel something other than drunk. “My girl,” he smiled, reaching for her shoulder, “I don’t know why money rules us.”
“Well, you work at a bank, you must have some idea,” she reasoned.
Phineas pondered her statement for a moment. “Well,” he breathed cautiously, “money is how we survive. It’s how we are able to have things like food and shelter and toys.”
“But I can have all of those things for myself anyway,” she explained. “Money doesn’t hammer a nail, or grow a potato, and I can make my own toys. I made my doll.” She pulled a ragged, stuffed dolly from inside her coat. “Her name is Maggie. I got the wool to make her dress all by myself. Mr. Baker had some from his sheep that he gave to me. He said he was glad to give me the wool, that it’s important to help people who need help. So I made a sweater for Percy and had a bit left over for Maggie’s dress!”
“My dear child, that is a wonderful story,” he agreed. The passion of anger had turned into firm resolve as the girl spoke. He knew what had to be done. “I will help you and your family,” he announced. With triumph in his limbs he swept the flask, which had been in his hands this whole time, to his lips. His body had been craving a drink since his tumble down the hill, but before he could take a swig, he noticed the girl eying him disapprovingly.
“Aren’t you happy to hear that I will help you?” he asked.
Anna’s frown did not dissipate. “My teacher says you’re an alcoholic,” she said flatly. “She says that you couldn’t find sobriety even if it was at the bottom of a pint glass. How can you help us if you’re drunk all the time?”
The heat of resolve immediately succumbed to shame. Phineas stared at the flask, then at the shivering girl. He thought about how unfair it was that her family were being tormented by the bank, his bank. He thought about how unfair it was that people had to die, about how money ruins everything. His father was an alcoholic and had lots of money. His father died a miserable person. But Anna didn’t seem miserable, and neither did her mother and brother. They seemed perfectly content to have the little bits of joy that came their way, and did their best to create more joy, the kind that money can never buy.
“My dear girl, your teacher is right. I am an alcoholic.” he agreed solemnly.
“It’s not good for you, you know,” she scolded.
“Sometimes we do things that aren’t good for us because it makes living a bit more comfortable,” he explained.
“But how can bad things be comfortable? It sounds like an excuse to me.” The little girl folded her arms defiantly and stared at Mr. Frog, whose mouth ached for just one drop from the flask.
“It may be an excuse, my dear child,” he admitted, “but it helps me to….”
She stared at him blankly.
“I just need a little….”
Her scowl was unrelenting.
“You don’t need it at all Mr. Frog,” she said emphatically. “You don’t need another drink, you need a hug. You have such sad eyes.” Anna shimmied across the log and wrapped her arms around his plump waist. Phineas didn’t quite know what to do, so he patted her awkwardly on the head and tried to choke back the lump in his throat.
“You’re wise beyond your years,” he said. “What if I promise to stop drinking, will you let me help you then?”
The girl’s demeanor brightened a little. “Well, yes, that would be a fine start,” she grinned cautiously.
It’s already been too long coming, he reasoned. A good investment doesn’t always involve money. Phineas Frog took one last look at the flask and tossed it into the creek. It slid across the ice and disappeared into the tangled brush. “There you are,” he said proudly. “All gone!”
The pangs of fear at the sight of his beloved flask crashing irretrievably into the thicket was nothing compared to the exhilaration that consumed him. The flask suddenly seemed unimportant, and the loss of the poisonous liquid inside was certainly not a matter for mourning. For the first time in his life he’d become emboldened by something other than the drink. Is this what love feels like? he wondered.
“Now will you let me help you?” he asked.
Anna hopped down off the log. “Yes Mr. Frog, it would be so good of you if you will help us! Will you help me to get to New York and find a job?”
“My dear child I will do nothing of the sort,” he boomed. “You will not be working until you have finished your schooling. That much I can guarantee.”
She darkened a bit. “But how can we save our house from the bank if I don’t get some money?”
Phineas straightened, suddenly losing the rumpled, drunken affect he normally carried and assumed a very dignified posture. “I am the president of the bank my dear,” he explained. “I will see to it that you have a home to live in no matter how much money you have.”
Anna squealed with joy. “Oh Mr. Frog, thank you, thank you, thank you!” she cried, throwing her arms around him.
“Leave it to me, my dear,” he consoled her. “But first, we must return you to your mother. She is horribly worried about you.”
Anna stepped back and hung her head. “I’m gonna be in an awful mess when Mother finds out I ran away,” she lamented.
“Don’t you worry about that, little one,” Phineas winked. “I’ll take care of everything. But we need to get going, the snow is becoming dangerous and the day is nearly extinguished.” The unlikely pair made their way up the wooded hillside, emerging just across the street from the pub.
As they trudged through the piles of snow, Anna’s mother came running to greet them. “Oh my darling girl,” she wept, pulling her daughter close. “I was so worried! Oh thank you Mr. Frog, thank you!” A police officer watched the scene.
“Everything alright, Mr. Frog?” the officer called from the pub’s entryway, one foot already in the door, the other poised for action.
“Oh yes, just fine thank you,” Phineas replied with a friendly wave. “Go on inside and warm up.” The officer tipped his hat and disappeared inside the pub.
Phineas turned to the woman and gave a cordial bow. “The girl had gone off after a particularly beautiful squirrel,” he explained. “Worried about the effects of the cold on the delicate creature, she wanted only to give it a warm hug, but instead found herself tumbling down the hillside, her footing giving way to the loose drifts.”
Her mother gave a stern look. “Anna you know better than to go traipsing off after animals. They are well suited for the snow, much better than you and I.” The girl hung her head and gave a sideways glance to her “rescuer.”
Not missing a beat, Phineas chimed in. “I thought it was an especially noble gesture, and while chasing animals through the snow may be a futile endeavor, the spirit of the chase was far more noble than inaction. Still, it’s best to keep our passions in check and find the most effective way to reach our goals, isn’t it Anna?” Anna nodded in agreement. Her mother gave the girl a final inspection and confirmed that everything was in order. She rose and pulled both her children close.
“Well, all is well again,” Mr. Frog smiled, giving Anna a slight wink. “You have a lovely family Mrs… Mrs….”
“Foster,” the woman replied. “Luella Foster.” She extended her hand.
“Please please, dear lady, call me Phineas.” He held her hand for as long as he dared, which was but a few ticks on his pocket watch but felt like a lifetime.
“Mr. Frog, come on in, drinks are on the house,” called Jimmy from the pub’s threshold, a contingent of drunken merrymakers huddled behind him. Phineas felt the familiar pangs of alcohol dependence, and for a moment lightened at the thought of a cold drink on a cold day. But one look into Anna’s eyes told him that he wasn’t going to return to the pub today. Perhaps never again.
“You can come home with us instead,” offered Anna.
“Yes yes, Mother, can Mr. Frog come home with us?” shouted Percy. “I want to show him the toy train I got for Christmas!”
“That would be just wonderful,” Luella Foster agreed. “Will you join us for dinner, Mr. Fr… Phineas? I owe you a debt much larger than I can ever repay.”
Phineas needed no further invitation. “I would be honored to join you this evening, my friends. Jimmy,” he called to the barkeep, “thank you for you generosity, but I will not be taking advantage of the pub’s refreshment this evening. You’ve been a good and faithful ally, but this evening will take a different trajectory.”
He offered his arm to Luella. “Lead the way, ma’am,” he prompted, and she delicately accepted. As the group swished through the deep snow, Luella lost her footing for just a moment and tightened her hand around his elbow for support. The exaltation Phineas felt was unlike the effects of any brew or liquor he’d ever imbibed. His heart was alight, soaring through the cold wet flakes that dotted them like shimmering jewels. This was better than any drink, he decided.
Luella gave him a warm smile and pulled herself close to his side. “It’s nice to have someone to support me,” she said. Was that a hint of affection in her voice? Mr. Frog thought it was unmistakably so.
So it was that Phineas Frog found his bliss that day. It was not at the bottom of a flask nor atop a bar counter, it was there in the embrace of a grateful woman. The four of them were together that night, and ever after, sharing the selfless love that had rescued them all.
For more short stories by R. W. Hershey, please grab a copy of The Philosopher’s Stoned