The Moaning Banjo Frog by Jake Tuck

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Darryl Vickers isn’t hearing the frog sounds he’s listening for. He and Jansen are waist deep in a reeking swamp, recording ribbits. Frustrated, Vickers tromps around and chases the frogs. He manages to catch one of them. Jansen shines a flashlight on it.

“Is it a Moaner?” Jansen says. He’s predominantly a songbird man, doesn’t know jack about amphibians.

“No, just a regular Banjo Frog.” Not that Vickers is a herpetologist or anything, but he’s certainly up on the elusive Moaning Banjo Frog, which, due to the recent discovery of a seventy-five-year-old recording of its melancholy croak, has become a very trendy amphibian.

Vickers drops the frog back into the water. He gets an idea.

“I could totally pass off these regular Banjos as Moaning Banjos.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll manipulate the sound, it’ll fly.”

Jansen looks shocked.

“What, I need this frog, Jansen.”

“If you need money, just ask.”

“You don’t have any money.”

“I have assets.”

“Like what?”

“My library of birdsongs, of course.”

Jansen is a dedicated avian recordist, but he doesn’t make a living in wildlife audio like Vickers, so he’s not attuned to the marketplace.

“No one lacks for birdsong audio, Jansen.”

Whereas a recording of the Moaning Banjo Frog will fetch substantial coin. When the barely-audible old recording—the only one known to exist—was found in the files of a long-dead naturalist named Lincoln Bleek, a herd of eco-acousticians and herpetologists showed up at the small area of swamp Bleek had claimed was the Moaning Banjos’ habitat. The recordists got nothing more than a chorus of unmelodious banjo plucks. When everyone left, Vickers swooped in, figuring that the Moaners would be more likely to do their thing without half the American Herpetological Society up in their business. Unfortunately he has come up just as empty.

He becomes set on the counterfeiting. Given his poverty and the blacklisting that resulted from the alligator catastrophe (more on that in a second), he can’t afford to wait around for a frog that’s probably either extinct or a hoax in the first place.

Back at the motel, Jansen takes a bath and Vickers listens to the regular Banjo Frogs. The monotone banjo plucks will be easy to mold into a convincing moan. Vickers is an old hand at the manipulation of wildlife recordings. Or at least a not-brand-new hand—he recently softened the edges of some gull calls in an ocean soundscape he and his ex-girlfriend and -recording partner Christine recorded for a wellness startup’s meditation app. Sure, he wasn’t claiming to have bagged the holy grail of seabird audio, but the process won’t be fundamentally different.

In the background of the recording, Vickers hears a hum from the nearby campus of Nilgaard Plastics, a multinational concern that now occupies half of the Moaning Banjo Frog’s supposed habitat—the perimeter of which Bleek specifically outlined in field observations. When Nilgaard filled in the swamp to build their plant, the Moaning Banjo wasn’t known to exist, but the company has nonetheless been painted in certain circles as a wanton killer of rare frogs. And in light of a talk Vickers heard by Bernie Krause, the eminent eco-acoustician, the effect of the plant may be more insidious than simple habitat encroachment. Krause claimed that man-made sounds can disrupt frogs’ synchronous vocalizations—which not only attract mates but also cloak individual locations—thus leaving them vulnerable to predators.

After listening to a few minutes of tape, Vickers hears distinct moaning overwhelming the whole soundscape. Holy shit, how could he have not heard it while they were recording?! Wait, now it just sounds like a human man. He takes off his headphones and hears Jansen moaning through the walls. Hopefully he’s not stroking it in the tub.

*

Before the alligator catastrophe, Vickers and Christine were rising stars in the wildlife recording game. The jaguar mating sounds they got for “Jungle Cats!,” an exhibit at the DiSilva Natural Science Museum, were a hit and led to a prestigious gig doing supplemental sound on a TV show about alligator wrestlers.

It was six months ago. They were recording in a swamp nearby the one he just came from, trying to get richer gator hisses and bellows than what the show’s recordists got during shooting. Vickers was tossing pebbles at an alligator’s face to get it riled up. He told Christine to get the boom mic in as close as possible. The alligator barely reacted to the pebbles, so Vickers picked up a rock and hit the gator directly in the eye. It promptly bit off Christine’s left foot.

Word got around and now no one will hire Vickers. He figures the Moaning Banjo Frog will help potential clients forget the alligator catastrophe.

Whereas Christine will never forget.

*

She calls him in the morning. She wants him to get his pinball machine out of her house—she tripped over it, needs more room to get around now. Vickers says he’s out of town, will get it in a day or two. She asks where he is. Though he doesn’t want to remind her of the alligator catastrophe by telling her that he’s right near where it happened, she’ll figure it out anyway when he tells her about the Moaning Banjo.

“What are you doing in the swamplands?”

“Oh, you know, just succeeding where every herper with a shotgun mic has failed.”

“Not the Moaning Banjo.”

“Still reading the blogs I see.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“When have I lied to you?”

“How about when you told me alligators were all bark, no bite.”

It kills him. It really does. He wakes every morning to pangs of remorse. Oh yeah, this is the life where he caused his beloved to be mauled by a large reptile; where she suffers through acute phantom limb pain; where the prosthesis her health plan covered is a glorified peg leg; where she’s dating her physical therapist, a young guy named Kyle who looks like a surfwear model and might have a stump fetish. It’s not the life where Vickers and Christine still jaunt around the tropics, furtively recording large cat sex while trying their best not to cry out with the animal lust they feel for each other.

“Get the pinball machine as soon as you get back,” Christine says before hanging up.

*

Since Christine threw him out, Vickers has been sleeping on Jansen’s couch, which is not ideal, but it’s near Christine, and Jansen seems to like the company, so it’ll do for now.

By the time they get back to Jansen’s, Vickers has convinced him that he’s not going to counterfeit the frog sounds. Whereas he has every intention of counterfeiting the frog sounds. He gets to work right away. By the time he goes to sleep, he’s fashioned a passable moan. He’ll have to do some more work on it, but he’s pretty confident it’ll fly. “Jungle Cats!” gave him a rep for being able to get the sounds no one else can. In that case, he traded some tribesmen an MP3 player for the location of a secluded jaguar mating spot.

Vickers wonders if the ersatz frog moans might pay for one of those prostheses that double-amputee sprinters have. Christine still has her right foot though, so her stride might not be symmetric. Still, she would be really good at hopping. Anyway, he could replace the peg leg.

*

After a bit more work, the frog moan is on point. It has a slow bluesy vibrato, then goes into an upper register, almost like a falsetto. The melody repeats, then the hum of the plastics plant nearly overtakes it. But miraculously the frogs are not phased. They do a little group improvisation, like in ragtime or something. It’s collective, like they’re still trying to cloak their locations; but it’s also individualistic, like, “We’re discombobulated by that generalized industrial hum, but you’re crazy if you think each one of us isn’t going to continue to express ourselves.” Vickers has matched the tone of the croak more-or-less with the Bleek recording, which is so faint and crackly that no one could possibly prove the two recordings are not the same frog. He’s also added a sort of coda that balances the resilience suggested by the adlib section with distinct pathos—the sound of, “Our habitat has shrunk by half, we bemoan it.” What ultimately sells it though is the quality of the soundscape as a whole, which, if Vickers is honest, is Christine’s work—she customized their gear. The burbles of a nearby stream, the insect stridulations, even the industrial hum—it’s crisp and warm and immersive. The moan sounds entirely plausible against this rich soundscape.

*

From “Jungle Cats!” Vickers has a good relationship with Craig Beauchamp at the DiSilva Museum. Before Vickers went down to the swamplands, he heard that Beauchamp was in the process of acquiring the Bleek recording and the attendant field observations. Vickers is hoping that Beauchamp’s Machiavellian streak will prevent him from heeding the blacklisting.

Vickers goes to the museum, plays the moan for Beauchamp, who looks less excited about it than Vickers expected.

Beauchamp says, “This could fit well in the Elusive Amphibian Survey I’m prepping.”

“Great, but, survey?

“It’s flavor-of-the-week with frogs these days. This week it’s that Unnamed Malagasy Tree Frog that’s everyone’s talking about.”

Vickers has heard about this tree frog, which has a lifeless croak but secretes a chemical that cancer researchers are interested in synthesizing. Plus it’s bright orange—Beauchamp says its stuffed likeness could do crazy merchandising numbers. Whereas his projections on the brown and chubby Moaning Banjo Frog are pretty bearish.

“Would Christine be able to set up all the audio environments à la ‘Jungle Cats!’?”

“No, but I can do it, it’s pretty simple.”

“It’s not simple at all Darryl, and you know it. The playback has to be designed in concert with room specs, lighting design. And what about audio tour narration?”

The audio environments will indeed be tricky without Christine, but Vickers completely forgot about the audio tour. Everyone loved Christine’s narration for “Jungle Cats!”

“Okay, I can get her to do the tour and set up the environments.”

They talk money. Beauchamp’s offer probably won’t pay for a bionic leg, to say nothing of moving out of Jansen’s. At least it’s a job though.

“So you know, if we get our hands on a live specimen of that tree frog, we’ll probably scrap the rest of the survey.”

“I want a kill fee if so.”

“That’s great, but no, I’m already doing you a big favor.”

“The frog sings, Craig. A sad song.”

“I heard it. No kill fee.”

*

Vickers and Jansen go to Christine’s to get the pinball machine. Vickers hasn’t seen Christine since she threw him out. In the driveway, along with Christine’s sedan, is a bright yellow SUV with racks to accommodate any extreme sports equipment one might want.

They go inside and do tense small talk. Christine is sitting in the kitchen with a mirror in front of her existing foot, wiggling her toes. Since Vickers last saw her, she got a haircut and gained back a lot of the weight she had lost. She looks pretty relaxed, attuned to things.

“What’re you doing?” Vickers asks Christine.

She looks tentatively at him.

“Mirror therapy. Helps with the phantom limb pain. Tricks my brain into thinking my foot is still there.”

“Pinball machine needs to go,” Kyle says, at the island, stuffing things into a juicer. “Christine tripped on it.”

“I’m aware,” Vickers says.

He notices a new prosthesis on the floor. Christine notices him noticing.

“Oh yeah, I got a new leg. So much more comfortable than the other one.”

“I made a few calls,” Kyle says. He bears down on a root vegetable that Vickers doesn’t recognize.

Christine puts on the new prosthesis, gets up and goes over to Kyle. Her gait doesn’t have the hitch it did with the peg leg. The two of them talk quietly about the juicing. Vickers notices a small quiver in her cheeks.

“Can we talk for a second?” he says.

“You’re insane if you think I’ll leave you alone with her,” Kyle says.

Mean Darryl mode stirs within Vickers.

“Not like there are any alligators around.”

“What do you want, Darryl?” Christine says.

“Jansen, can you go outside for a second?”

“I don’t want you getting muscled.”

“Fucking just go outside Jansen, okay?”

Jansen goes outside.

Vickers says, “Craig Beauchamp is prepping a frog exhibit featuring my Moaning Banjo recording.”

Christine nods and sort of smiles but doesn’t say anything.

Vickers says, “He wants you to set up the audio environments and do another tour narration.”

Christine blinks slowly. Sweat shines at her hairline.

“You really found that frog, huh?”

Vickers nods.

“That’s a big deal,” Christine says.

“I know.”

Her face is quivering more.

“Might be fun.”

Vickers hopes she isn’t screwing with him.

“Just get the pinball machine,” Kyle says.

Mean Darryl emerges in full.

“Can I try that juice?” he says.

“I don’t want her tripping on that thing again,” Kyle says.

Mean Darryl watches Kyle, a strapping man.

“Darryl,” Christine says. “Please don’t go into Mean Darryl mode.”

Too late.

Mean Darryl mode is what Christine calls it when Vickers disassociates and watches himself provoke people or things near Christine. It’s a bit of a misnomer—Mean Darryl isn’t that mean. Usually he’s pretty oblique, like with the juice inquiry. Even when Mean Darryl chucked that rock at the alligator’s eye, he was trying to provoke Christine, not the alligator. But he couldn’t hurt Christine, so he hurt the alligator.

Vickers remembers the bright red arterial blood spurting out of Christine’s leg and mixing with the brown bogwater. For several moments he didn’t understand what was happening, though it was pretty clear that Christine no longer had a foot and that the gator had one in its mouth. The gator receded back into the water. Christine didn’t seem to have much understanding of the situation for a while either. Then she began screaming. Then she passed out. Vickers managed to get a tourniquet on the leg, which he was oddly proud of at the time. He carried her to the car.

“Do you have a stump fetish?” Mean Darryl says to Kyle.

Kyle picks up Vickers in a fireman’s carry and brings him outside. Vickers doesn’t resist. Kyle throws him into the street. Jansen reacts with vaguely confrontational body language, but when Kyle tells him to help him get the pinball machine, Jansen obeys. Kyle tells Vickers not to move. Kyle and Jansen come out with the pinball machine, put it in the back of Jansen’s truck.

“Can I try the juice or not?” Mean Darryl says.

“You cannot try the juice, fuckhead.”

Mean Darryl recedes. He usually only has a couple gestures in him.

Christine comes out.

“Darryl, I’ll call you tonight about the exhibit.”

“Okay, great!”

She and Kyle go back inside.

“What exhibit?” Jansen says.

“Don’t worry about it.”

Jansen looks to be worrying about it.

*

They set up the pinball machine at Jansen’s.

“You’re compromising the sanctity of wildlife recording, Darryl.”

“You know I was supposed to be a doctor? I don’t even particularly like it outdoors. I don’t not like it, but I don’t love it. I’m not like you, Jansen. I’m a dilettante and an exploiter.”

Vickers is still processing what just happened. He’s pretty sure Christine is honestly interested in the job. Is it because she misses him? Misses working with him? Just misses working?

He watches Jansen’s TV while waiting on Christine’s call. There’s a show on about addiction interventions. A teenager is in the hospital after getting high and crashing his parents’ car into an appliance store. He looks terrible, skinny, arm in a sling, open sores on his face. His family looms around him.

Vickers thinks of when Christine was in the hospital. She had had issues with pills, so she only took weak pain killers. He could see the pain on her face, shaking like that quiver he saw today, but much worse. She said the foot felt like it was still there, but what was different about it was that it was on fire.

“Plus,” Vickers says to Jansen, apropos of nothing, “Nilgaard Plastics is intruding on the habitat of the regular Banjo Frogs. The exhibit will bring awareness.”

“Didn’t you say Banjo Frogs are all over the South?”

“So these ones don’t matter?”

Vickers’ phone rings. It’s Christine.

“I’m sorry about today,” he says.

“Yeah, well.”

“Well, what?”

She sighs through the phone so loud that it distorts the sound. He’s heard that distortion before, once asked her why she hadn’t rigged the phone with a windscreen.

She says, “It’s not really your fault when Mean Darryl shows up, but it’s your fault that you don’t make any effort to, like, take preventative measures. When you’re Nice Darryl I mean. Not that you’re that nice. But when you’re not Mean Darryl.”

He tries to think of some meaningful way to atone, not just for the juice/stump inquiries, but also the alligator catastrophe. Something perfectly-phrased that would work like a magic spell and square everything. He’s got nothing.

Maybe he should bring her a quiche.

“Anyway, I’ll do the audio environments and the tour narration.”

He swells with joy. He goes out onto the porch. It’s cool but nice. He breathes in deeply.

“I love you so much, Christine.”

Another distorted sigh.

“The only part,” she says, then pauses. “You know, I almost said, ‘The only part of me that still loves you was digested by that alligator.’”

“But you didn’t.”

“No, because I’m not sure it’s true.”

“Because all of you still loves me, or because the alligator actually spit out your foot?”

“Is that right? He spit it out?”

“Yeah, right out, wasn’t hungry I guess.”

“I didn’t know that. Anyway, no, what I meant was, when that alligator bit off my foot, I’m not sure any part of me still loved you.”

Vickers thinks about that.

“So, including the foot.”

“Why would the foot be the only part of me that loved you before it was bit off?”

“Oh, right, I dunno.”

“Kyle’s kabobs are ready, I gotta go. We’ll talk about the exhibit.”

Mean Darryl looks around and doesn’t see anything to provoke. Provoking Jansen doesn’t appeal to Mean Darryl. He recedes.

*

Vickers thinks about how before he and Christine dated, his emotional responses were the regular kind, not the quasi-fugue-state kind Mean Darryl traffics in. He thinks about why Mean Darryl gassed that rock at the alligator’s head. Vickers didn’t care that much about the alligator sounds. He could’ve manipulated some stock audio he had—the producers never would have known. No, Mean Darryl emerged and plunked the alligator because of the way Christine looked at Vickers.

She stood there with the boom mic right in the alligator’s face, but without fear. She was barely paying attention to the beast. She looked at Vickers almost piteously, like, “I most likely don’t love you anymore.” He had seen the look before, but not clearly like this. It wasn’t a look of remorse, or guilt. She seemed to not feel anything about herself. It was a look of sadness and compassion only for him.

Vickers wonders if the Moaning Banjo Frog is Mean Darryl in longform.

*

The Unnamed Malagasy Tree Frog turns out to be a bust. It’s revealed that a science blogger took the cancer researchers’ interest in the frog’s secretion out of context. It’s unclear what the original context was—beyond general interest in herpetological secretions—but regardless, the upshot is that the DiSilva board leans on Beauchamp to phase the tree frog out of the Elusive Amphibian Survey. Together they decide that none of the remaining frogs in the survey pop like the Moaning Banjo. They think there may be crossover appeal. Maybe not meerkat or manatee crossover appeal, but crossover appeal. After a product-development brainstorming session, Beauchamp has marketing run numbers on squeezable moaning frog toys. They tell him squeezable moaning frog toys might have a big upside.

*

It’s hard for Vickers to see Christine having moved on from him. Really hard. He feels like a wad of exhausted meat-knots. Still, he manages to carry on. He doesn’t know what else to do. The Moaning Banjo Frog is all he has, and now it has its own exhibit.

Eventually he and Christine return to a semblance of their old professional rhythm. He puts the finishing touches on the recording while she sets up all the equipment for the audio environments at the museum. They write and record the audio tour together at her place. Kyle watches, but gives them enough room to work. After a couple sessions, he only butts in to bring them healthy and delicious snacks. Vickers can’t help but admit that Kyle isn’t a bad guy, probably doesn’t have a stump fetish. Christine seems to really like him. When he appears with spreads of pears and whole grain crackers and interesting mustards, the quiver in her cheek is overcome by a smile. Somehow Mean Darryl sleeps, probably because Christine no longer looks at Vickers piteously, or really much at all.

*

Vickers arrives early to the opening reception for “Moaning Frogs: Sounds of Beauty, Sounds of Pain,” so he can check out the exhibit. The bog graphics on the walls are backlit in a cool way and the layout of the exhibit really tells a story. Beauchamp has done a great job. And it’s a more intriguing exhibit than if they actually had live specimens. Without amplification and manipulation, the Moaning Banjo Frog’s trill probably isn’t too affecting.

People show up, including Christine, who looks incredible, and Kyle.

Vickers watches Christine watch the well-dressed rich people mill about. It’s much more glitzy than the “Jungle Cats!” opening. There’s a famous rock musician there, though he’s old and nearly unrecognizable. There are either press photographers or enthusiasts with expensive cameras.

Beauchamp unveils a special display about Christine and how she battled back from losing her foot to work on the frog audio. Vickers is barely mentioned.

“I’m sure you understand why,” Beauchamp says as he takes Vickers aside.

“No, I don’t. She didn’t find the damn frog, Craig.”

“Who cares? She worked on the exhibit, close enough. People love her story. People don’t love your story. Your story feels common, with a touch of malevolence.”

“You have to take her out of the exhibit, Craig.”

“It doesn’t say anywhere that Christine found the frog. It just highlights her.”

Vickers realizes something.

“Did you hire me just to exploit Christine?”

“Her situation wasn’t irrelevant. She also happens to do great work.”

Christine is now wedded to the entire ruse. It’s just like the alligator catastrophe, when Vickers’ projection of heartbreak ended up in exactly the place it wasn’t supposed to be.

“And the actual reason for the exhibit, i.e. the highly sought-after amphibian audio that I recorded?”

“Also not irrelevant.”

A crowd gathers around Christine. Her prosthesis gleams in the dramatic lighting above the display. Kyle comes over to Vickers and Beauchamp.

“I love how you guys have highlighted Christine,” he says.

He puts his arm around Vickers.

“She highlights herself,” Beauchamp says.

Kyle puts his arm around Beauchamp.

Indeed, she glows. A white-haired woman with a young boy at her side looks to be heaping admiration on her. The young boy stares at the prosthesis.

Christine peels herself away from her admirers and joins the three men.

“Um, Craig, you know that Darryl found the frog, right?”

“It doesn’t say otherwise in the exhibit. We’re just highlighting your role in the recording process.”

“I didn’t have any role in the recording process.”

“The overall process, the audio process.”

Vickers excuses himself and tries to find the bathroom but ends up in a storage room with a bunch of skeleton racks. He imagines all the bones that might be hung on them. The racks are pretty small, so he figures birds and whatnot.

After he finds the actual bathroom and comes back out, Christine says she and Kyle should get going. Vickers can tell it’s because she’s in a stupid amount of pain. Her face is almost shaking. Rills of sweat run down her temples.

He wants to lay before her feet and beg for mercy. Or apologize for even meeting her. Or run out and buy a quiche. Or write a thoughtful letter that she’ll always cherish. He wants to give her the letter and a quiche in a flourish of humility.

Above all, he wants to hate her.

Christine and Kyle leave. Vickers watches her walk out, on Kyle’s arm. He notices a little hitch in her gait. Maybe Kyle’s prosthesis isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Vickers makes his way through the exhibit. He finds a bin stocked with stuffed Moaning Banjo Frogs. He squeezes one of them and it moans. For a second he’s proud of the whole farce, the architecture of it. He squeezes another frog. Then another. As the chorus rings out, he loses the pride. He loses it completely.

He moans along with the frogs. The piped-in frogs and the stuffed frogs. Even the regular Banjo Frogs, the real frogs that he bastardized. He’s somewhere with all the frogs.


Jake Tuck has published fiction in The Chicago Quarterly Review and The Conium Review. He has also written for The New Yorker online, DeadspinEater, and The Awl. He lives in Brooklyn.


Photo by Sarah Youthed on Unsplash