Excerpt: 'Who Will Run the Frog Hospital'

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Bookseller Lucia Silva recommends Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore in Susan Stamberg's annual conversation about summer books for Morning Edition.

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First Pages

IN PARIS we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them. They are a kind of seafood, he thinks, locked tightly in the skull, like shelled creatures in the dark caves of the ocean, sprung suddenly free and killed by light; they've grown clammy with shelter, fortressed vulnerability, dreamy nights. Me, I'm eating for a flashback.

"The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," says Daniel, my husband, finger raised, as if the thought has just come to him via the cervelles. "Remember the beast you eat. And it will remember you."

I'm hoping for something Proustian, all that forgotten childhood. I mash them against the roof of my mouth, melt them, waiting for something to be triggered in my head, in empathy or chemistry or some other rush of protein. The tempest in the teacup, the typhoon in the trout; there is wine, and we drink lots of it.

We sit beside people who show us wallet pictures of their children. "Sont-ils si mignons!" I say. My husband constructs remarks in his own patois. We, us, have no little ones. He doesn't know French. But he studied Spanish once, and now, with a sad robustness, speaks of our childlessness to the couple next to us. "But," he adds, thinking fondly of our cat, "we do have a large gato at home."

"Gâteau means 'cake,' I whisper. "You've just told them we have a large cake at home." I don't know why he always strikes up conversations with the people next to us. But he strikes them up, thinking it friendly and polite rather than oafish and irritating, which is what I think.

Afterward we always go to the same chocolatier for whiskey truffles. One feels the captured storm in these, a warm storm under the tongue.

"What aggrandizement are we in again?" my husband asks.

"What 'aggrandizement'?" I say. "I don't know, but I think we're in one of the biggies." My husband pronounces tirez as if it were Spanish, père as if it were pier. The affectionate farce I make of him ignores the ways I feel his lack of love for me. But we are managing. We touch each other's sleeves. We say, "Look at that!," wanting our eyes to merge, our minds to be one. We are in Paris, with its impeccable marzipan and light, its whiffs of sewage and police state. With my sore hip and his fallen arches ("fallen archness," Daniel calls it), we walk the quais, stand on all the bridges in the misty rain, and look out on this pretty place, secretly imagining being married to other people—right here in River City!—and sometimes not, sometimes simply wondering, silently or aloud, what will become of the world.

WHEN I WAS a child, I tried hard for a time to split my voice. I wanted to make chords, to splinter my throat into harmonies—floreted as a field, which is how I saw it. It seemed like something one should be able to do. With concentration and a muscular push of air, I felt, I might be able to people myself, unleash the crowd in my voice box, give birth, set free all the moods and nuances, all the lovely and mystical inhabitants of my mind's speech. Afternoons, by myself, I would go beyond the garden and the currant bushes, past the lavender-crowned chives and slender asparagus, past the sunflowers knocked bent by deer or an unseasonal frost, past the gully grass to the meadow far behind our house. Or I'd go down the road to the empty lot near the Naval Reserve where in winter the village plow and dump truck unloaded snow and where in summer sometimes the boys played ball. I would look out upon the wildflowers, the mulch of swamp and leaves, the spring moss greening on the rocks, or the boulderous mountains of street-black snow, whatever season it happened to be—my mittens clotted with ice, or my hands grimy with marsh mud—and from the back of my larynx I'd send part of my voice out toward the horizon and part of it straight up toward the sky. There must have been pain in me. I wanted to howl and fly and break apart.

The result was much coughing, wheezing, and a hoarseness troubling, I was told by Mrs. LeBlanc, our cleaning woman, to hear in a child. "You getting a cold, Miss Berie Carr?" she might ask when I came in too soon for dinner. She would say my name like that, making it sound Irish, though it wasn't. "Nope," I'd say brusquely. She was jolly, but also bearish and oniony; I didn't like her breathing close; I didn't want her inspecting me like a nurse. We could scarcely afford a cleaning woman, but my mother was often lonely for talk, even in our crowded house, and she liked to sit with Mrs. LeBlanc in the kitchen, over cigarettes and tea. Even when I didn't see Mrs. LeBlanc, even when I'd successfully avoided her, I knew when she'd been there: the house would be full of smoke and still messy except for the magazines in new, neat stacks; my mother would be humming; the check on the counter would be gone.

After a year, when the chords I wanted consistently failed to appear, and all I could make was a low droning rasp to accompany my main note (where was the choir of angels, the jazzy jazz?), I finally stopped. I began instead to wish on spiderwebs or five-sided stones. I wished for eternal and intriguing muteness. I would be the Mysterious Dumb Girl, the Enigmatic Elf. The human voice no longer interested me. The human voice was too plain. It was important, I felt, to do something fancy. I just didn't know what.

Although no voice was ever plain in our house—not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that. There were fancinesses: Years of my mother's Canadian French slipping out only in the direst of lullabies. Or the faux-patrician lilt her voice fell into when she wanted to seem smart for her redoubtable in-laws—her voice became a trained one, trying to relocate itself socially and geographically. Or years of my father's college German fired across the dinner table, as my mother would try apprehensively to learn it this way, in order to talk with him at supper about private matters—without the children catching on. "Was ist los, schätzchen?"

"Ich weiss nicht."

We would sometimes have students from other countries living with us for a few weeks, sleeping on one of the Hide-A-Beds—in the living room, cellar, or den. Sometimes there were teachers—from Tunisia, Argentina, or Tanzania, countries with names that sounded like the names of beautiful little girls. There were South American city planners, African refugees. "My parents were trying to shock the neighborhood," I would say years later, at social occasions when one was supposed to be able to speak of one's upbringing and be amusing at the same time.

Everything in our house when I was young felt cloaked with foreignness, code, mood. People would come and stay, then go.

One of the many results of this for me was a tin ear for languages. My brain worked stiffly, regrouped and improvised sounds. For a while I believed Sandra Dee was not only an actress but one of the French days of the week. I sang "Frère Jacques" with the bewildering line, "Sonny, lay my Tina." Knowing that a foreign tongue was often tense marital code, off-limits to the kinder, all forbidden chirp and wind, belonging to the guests, I grew sullen, and vaguely deaf, resentful in a way that was at the time inexplicable to myself; I tuned out. I played with my food—the heavily cerealed meat loaf, the Habitant soup and blood pudding, the peeling fish sticks—or else I ate too much of it. I stuffed my mouth and clutched my stomach, chewing. From early on and for a long time thereafter when I heard something not English—Mr. Gambari's Ibu, Mrs. Carmen-Perez singing a Spanish song—as a form of politeness my brain shut down. My teachers in school—French, German, Latin—would call on me, but I couldn't hear what they were saying. I never knew what it was—their mouths just moving and the sounds reaching me, jumbled and scary.

Excerpted from Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore. Copyright © 1994, Lorrie Moore. Reprinted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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