THE REFLECTIONS OF THE FROG PRINCE IN THE HALL OF MIRRORS, PART II

A cool, dry air mass had settled into the region. They all felt comfortable in the early hours of Saturday morning, as Francis drove Estelle’s bright red, Honda Accord upstate for a late-summer outing at a county fair. The windows were down. Dappled shadows swept casually over them. Estelle sat beside him and miracle of miracles, her kids reclined in the back seat.
Estelle knew that before she started dating him, he had slept with other women working at the terminal, and always at their behest. She also had the foresight to fathom the inertia which propelled him. As long as she kept him occupied he was hers. Some women had assumed his gentlemanly concerns a sign of their success, and had failed to hold him. Others, especially the stewardesses, had considered his absentmindedness a sign of insolence. Ambivalence, perhaps, but certainly not insolence. That much Estelle knew. She knew he was not immune to beauty nor to the wily ways of her sex. If a woman passed wearing the right skirt he noticed. With her seductive ploys Estelle generated the gravitational field that kept him in orbit around her. A momentary lapse, like paying too much attention to her kids, and he would simply drift off into space until another body of greater power captured him. Perhaps one day Mr. Right would come by. He might not have the beauty of Francis, nor his subtle ways in bed. But Mr. Right would be driven by a need for permanence. Until yesterday, when she met the strange man talking to Francis in The Leap For Light, she never thought Francis had an interest in children.
“Murphy was telling me if we got there early enough we’d be able to park close to the admission gate, otherwise we have to walk.”
“Walking is ok.”
“Not with the kids,” she said.
In the rear view mirror he saw Jose, six years old, looking sleepily out one window and Cecelia, four years older, staring out another.
“Do you think they like me?”
“Do you guys like Francis?”
“Oh Jesus, what are they supposed to say?”
“Yeah,” came a dispassionate chorus.
“That guy with the Barbie sure gave me the once over,” she teased. “What’s he into, S&M?”
“What’s S&M, mama?” asked Cecelia, without appearing interested.
“Oh, Dios mio, tengas las orejas grandes, mi hija. S&M son dulce y lo mismo M&M.”
He looked over at her. She winked at him, her eye brows raised, her lips pursed. At work she could maintain a prosaic appearance of all business. Then by simply unfastening an extra button on her blouse she unleashed the mischievous thoughts of male travelers without, of course revealing anything. The unfastened buttons only came into play when she chose to arch her back or breathe in a certain way. When they were alone she knew how to lead him through the surface of the everyday appearances into the tangled layers of undergarments the likes of which he had never known before Estelle. Each layer lured him closer to the prize, each strap of lace, each string of jewelry vortexed him deeper into a region where even the prize itself, once acquired, left him yearning for still more.
It’s no wonder that for the last two years, Stell’s kids lived only on a theoretical plane in his consciousness. Sitting on her bed, he never wondered why her kids were never at home. The brown teddy bear or the little kitchen set which he played with absently while waiting for Estelle to emerge from the bathroom were evidence of their existence. Sometimes he wondered what they looked like? Did they look like their mother? That they might look like their father soured his interest – their father, after all, had created something out of the relationship. And what did Stell expect of Francis? She would wrap her arms around him and talk about how she liked it, and was he hungry and did he like her new curtains and did he think she should cut her hair and what was he thinking about – she always wanted to know that. Sometimes he didn’t know what he was thinking, other times, more recently, he recalled his own childhood days, his own brothers and sisters, all with families of their own now. He seemed to watch himself, an object making love to Estelle. He could have been watching a movie. Then the following day he always returned home where he lived with his mother and father. It all amounted to nothing.
As soon as they came around a hill the fair grounds loomed ahead like an enchanted parkland, punctuated by pinnacled tents. The kids became excited as soon as they saw the giant Ferris wheel which looked as if it had rolled into the valley from one of the surrounding hills. A teenage car attendant standing in a large field pointed them to a parking place. At a kiosk a heavyset man jovially admitted them as one happy family. Estelle sidled close to Francis, squeezing his arm.
“My young husband,” she whispered in his ear, gently biting it.
“Jesus, Stell,” he cried pulling away. She laughed.
The scent of farm animals intensified. Inside the first 4H Club tent they found pens with enormous pigs consuming hay from opened bales. The strong smell of urine forced Cecelia back out to her mother. Jose’s curiosity drove him on behind Francis. The truculent hogs charged the pen walls with feigned aggression. For Estelle and Cecelia, the chicken house, with its varieties of colorful hens, was the only interesting animal exhibit. She described the chicken coop on her father’s farm in Puerto Rico.
“I didn’t know your father had a farm,” asked Francis surprised.
“Everybody has chickens.”
“But a farm?”
“You don’t have to have a farm to have chickens.”
“But you just said. . .”
“Don’t take me so literally. It’s not like it is up here. Besides to these kids a backyard is like a farm. My god!”
Hunger and thirst led them into a new region where small, jerry-rigged booths displaying handmade crafts formed a narrow lane. In front of the booths sat the proprietors in nylon-webbed, aluminum folding chairs. A patrolling golf cart squeezed through carrying officials of the fair. The proximity of so much unusual merchandise at such apparent give-away prices was more than Estelle could resist. Francis and the kids waited as she bought one irresistible object after another for one or another of her aunts and uncles and of course for her mother. Finally Francis and the kids complained. They were hot and starving. So with bags full of candles and macramé plant holders, she reluctantly followed them.
The lane widened into a pavilion of games. The barkers harangued them to play. By the time they found their way out, no one was smiling. Another area opened up, this one enormous, a panoply of rides punctuated by the Ferris wheel. The kids nearly fainted with anticipation. Only the promise of return helped quiet them. At last, at the far end of the fairground, they came to the eating booths. With the exception of the Italian sausage place, these were nothing more than the usual fast foods Francis and Estelle could find at the airport.
“Hay caramba! They don’t even have Chinese or Spanish cooking!” said Estelle glumly. “Eating is like everything,” she added.
The kids sat down at a grease-stained bench. They demanded hotdogs with mustard and large cokes. Francis found a tray and bought sausage heroes and beers for Estelle and him and hotdogs and cokes for the kids. They looked down with disdain at the cup of sauerkraut he also brought.
“Now, what do you say, guys?” Estelle commanded.
“Thank you” was their lukewarm response.
As he ate Francis watched the vigorous activity at the Port-a-potties along the opposite fence.
The beer had the effect of dropping an iron anvil on his head. All he wanted to do was lay down and sleep. But the kids, only an hour earlier showing signs of total collapse, had found new energy and wanted to be off to the rides. Estelle, downing the last of her beer, decided to return to the craft area for a last look. Directing her kids to stay with Francis until she returned, she entrusted her bags of stuff to his care. The kids, especially Cecelia, did not like this idea but with a florid goodbye her mother disappeared around the corner of the corn dog stand. Fifteen, perhaps twenty minutes passed. At first the kids sat patiently at the table. The sun beat down. The flies buzzed. Then Jose, followed by Cecelia, began circling around the table. Jose found a stick and began hitting the ground dispassionately. Inevitably Cecelia wanted to ‘borrow’ it and try something.
“Try what?” asked Jose.
“Something,” she reiterated.
And so on, until they were arguing over who knew the most about what. It was Cecilia, now turning to Francis, his eyes in deep recession beneath his seashell eyelids, who finally questioned the purpose of coming to a stupid fair if all they were going to do was to sit for a hundred years waiting for their mother.
“Hasn’t been a hundred years, Cecilia. Maybe half an hour at the most.”
“No, it’s been years. Besides how would you know? You don’t even carry a watch.”
“That’s true.”
“Besides you are not my daddy.”
“I know that.”
“So you can’t tell me what to do.”
“I didn’t. Your momma did.”
“That was years and years ago.”
Forty-five minutes later and even Francis had lost his patience. Struggling against the effects of beer and heat he rose to go. Now Cecelia sat down, didn’t want to go.
“What about the bumper cars?” asked Jose continuing to circle the table.
This appealed to Francis.
“No,” said Cecelia. “You promised the Ferris wheel. Besides, then we can see the whole world and probably find Mama.”
Francis didn’t recall the promise.
“How about a compromise,” he offered. “Let’s wait for the rides until your mother returns.”
“No,” came an adamant voice from Jose, who had turned to face Francis with a disappointed but defiant face.
“I don’t mean we just sit here. We do games. That way we go far enough to see if your mother is on her way.”
They agreed. Feeling like a father, he guided Jose with a hand on his shoulder through the beckoning of the barkers. While Jose tried throwing pennies into a plastic dish floating in a plastic wading pool Cecelia stood to the side refusing to participate. Hoping to win Jose the large stuffed koala bear being offered as a prize, Francis tried. To his embarrassment he found the apparently easy-looking task impossible. They left the booth with Jose disappointed, Francis on the verge of fuming and Cecelia composing a look of “I told you so.” She did try the rifles at the shooting gallery, taking careful aim at the passing ducks on the conveyor belt on the far wall. When she succeeded in whacking the first three ducks in a session that took her over eight minutes of concentration, she earned the admiration of her brother as well as three stuffed chipmunks which she shared with him. Francis dared not try since Cecelia had proven herself a crack shot. Still no sign of Estelle.
“What about the Merry-Go-Round,” he suggested.
“For babies,” she retorted.
“Maybe your little brother would like to try.”
“He thinks you are a baby.”
“I am not!”
Francis shrugged. “Okay, forget it.”
“Only if Cissy goes with me,” countered Jose.
“You heard her, she thinks it’s for babies.”
“It’s not.”
“I know that, but she thinks so.”
“Come on,” pleaded José.
“I can’t. Someone has to watch for your mother,” added Francis holding up Estelle’s bags of goods.
Cecelia relented and they both sat in the saddles of galloping, wild stallions. Once the giant organ intoned the beginning of the ride, Cecelia, despite feigned indifference, was just as rapt as Jose with his unadulterated grin.
“Oh my god,” cried Estelle, “they’re having a ball.”
“Where have you been?” was Francis’s exasperated response.
“Shopping. I bought all kinds of little things for them, Christmas gifts and one or two little surprises for you,” she added with her lips suddenly parted in a pout as if he had hurt her feelings after all her hard endeavors for the sake of the family.
“For two hours! Here’s your stuff.”
“I also took the packages to the car and locked them in the trunk,” she added.
When the ride ended the kids ran to their mother, though only Jose hugged her.
“So what’s Uncle Francis…”
“I’m not their uncle?”
“Just this time…”
“He’s not our uncle,” emphasized Cecelia.
Later he and José sat in a swinging two-seater of the Ferris wheel perched high above the fairground as the sun was setting behind the Catskills. Their seat rocked back and forth in giddy little arcs. He realized he had been listening to the rattling staccato notes of the cicadas all afternoon. Now that the sun was setting their rapid outbursts of energetic wooing grew more sporadic. Below them Estelle and Cecelia sat, calling up to them. After the last vacancies had been filled, the ride lurched into motion. They shot up to the top where they could see the surrounding world in a haze of purple. The hills stretched toward eternity. As they crested the peak in a weightless moment, their bodies, borne upward seemed no longer tethered to the Earth. Then they dropped abruptly. The earth, reasserting its rule, brought them down with dizzying effect. Jose kept his mouth and eyes shut during the descent. Above them they could hear the girls scream. On the third round the lights on the wheel went on, effectively shutting out the world beyond in its own brightness. They spun in a world of their own, a world of light.
Back on the ground, they found groups of young people loitering about, most of them separated into gender groups. Boys hung languidly over the safety railings smoking cigarettes with caps perched backwards and pants hanging like deflated balloons from their hips. The girls moved quickly, like shimmering moths evading predators between the lit circles beneath lamp posts. An invisible current of interest radiated between the groups. Amid these charged gestures older couples materialized out of the dark air, the men with pony tails and cowboy hats, women in granny dresses. Young kids gathered around the rides, their parents laughing and joking while they waited in line. Over the PA someone announced the arrival of a well-known local band at the bandstand.
“What bandstand?” asked Cecelia.
Neither Francis and Estelle knew nor cared as they debated whether they should be going since the kids were sure to collapse soon. The evening air had cooled. The kids resisted, despite their exhaustion. They wearily passed the Moonwalk and found themselves in an isolated area of immense quiet in front of an unfamiliar amusement stand bearing the sign: The Hall of Mirrors. Francis couldn’t understand how they had missed this place. This mattered little to Estelle who wanted to show the kids the freaky affects of the funny mirrors. Since no one was in the ticket booth Estelle left their stubs on the wooden panel beneath the sales grill. Inside, the corners were illuminated by bare light bulbs that burst against the reflections of the visitors. Francis was startled to see his lovely Estelle transformed into a woman of gigantic proportions; then she was a woman as narrow as a high school teen plagued by anorexia. His eyes ricocheted from the mirrored reproductions to their source . Estelle laughed. She was hamming it up for the kids, who in turn mimicked her, hanging their arms down in simian fashion. They stretched their lips to absurd widths but never as wide as Estelle’s who stretched hers with her fingers reminding Francis of a stone carving of a gorgon he had seen on a Greek isles travel poster. His own distorted figure troubled him. He was accustomed to his face. So he was shocked by the sudden contortions into which his face erupted. Lumps grew out of his eye brows while his mouth sank into itself with self-consuming fury. Estelle laughed at him, her teeth transformed into ferocious daggers which curled and disappeared into her face leaving her without a nose: the giant eyes of an insect resting on mandibles of flesh.
The silence collapsed. A forest of tree toads erupted into strident love song. The din intensified, grew deafening. Francis wanted to stop his ears, close his eyes. His mouth was dry; he could barely swallow, and his face was wet. Then the violin-like chords emanating from beyond the pale, morphed into the jagged edges of guitar chords. They cut through the stale air inside the mirrored hall. Somewhere a band was tuning up. After a moment the cacophony rolled into the Cream’s interpretation of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads. Estelle began dancing in front of the mirrors. Her normally tight and perfectly rounded ass moved from side to side with ever increasing intensity, became suddenly as huge as a mountain then just as suddenly cooled down like a massive star sinking into oblivion. The kids emulated their mother, all three moving about in the hall of mirrors like a chorus of a thousand monkeys. With every step they morphed into new creatures, from one instar to the next. His head was pounding, his stomach churning like a washing machine. Was it the sausages, he wondered? Estelle had eaten them too. As he staggered out of The Hall of Mirrors, the Escaleras followed, dancing like a drunken party. For Estelle, liberated of her appearance, all was levity. The kids perhaps were more amused by their mother’s reaction than their own alterations. But inside Francis felt truly changed.
From the rear door of The Hall of Mirrors they looked down a long avenue of booths serving drinks and ice cream. People were walking down the avenue toward a wall of bleachers which apparently surrounded a stage from which the music was emanating. Estelle and her kids fell under the music’s spell. They were carried along without any decisive yea or nay toward the center of the fairgrounds, drawn like iron filings to the magnetic core of the well-lit stage. Francis followed, his eyes aching as if he had been staring at the sun. He was afraid he would lose complete control and throw up at any moment. Hundreds of teenagers had gathered by the bleachers. Where had they all come from? Kids just past puberty, the guys with their necklaces and cigarettes, the girls in their tight pants and low-cut tops, everyone flirting. Beneath the bleachers couples were making out.
As they were entering the arena the band finished Crossroads, letting it fall apart into discord. Out of its ruined notes rose up a wailing sound, the lead singer cursing the Whipping Post by the Allman Brothers. This piece carried Francis and Estelle and the kids to a high seat in the bleachers. Estelle was telling Francis she used to dislike the white boys’ music, preferring the horns and cymbals of Latino music, but since she had a white half-breed Asian lover she had to admit she liked the old music too. The Allman song also died in discord. For a moment all was silent. Then came the soft first notes of guitar and flute that formed itself into a rendition of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven. He knew this song. He remembered his older sisters playing the scratchy LP on the family record player after school. Their mother always closed the doors to the kitchen, shaking her head in disapproval. Listening to Led Zeppelin had made him a respectable character in grade school. He even knew the words. Estelle didn’t know the piece but she was enjoying herself. The Page and Plant lyrics illustrated the simple mysteries of doing what is right. Rung by rung the melodies carried the audience up. Who could fail to follow? It appeared as if time had come to a halt, some planetary zenith reached. The summer stage seemed poised at any moment to dissolve into the warm night air, made of stuff like dreams. At any moment he would find himself alone in the field among the tree toads, driven by the instinctual need to procreate. The toads, like the cicadas, belonged here. So did all the young people, driven by their own needs, they belonged. But he didn’t. He and Estelle had been together too long. He could see the air of excitement had been ground down by their routine encounters. Stell used ploys to keep him interested. He didn’t deny it, he liked the foreplay, her use of lingerie. He stayed for lack of anything better to do. He liked her kids, liked the feeling of being a family man, but none of it was his.
When the final chord was reached, there was clapping in front of the stage where groupies had gathered to support their band. After a pause, a brisk I Got You Babe, reached deep into his stasis with its sense of irony. Estelle put her arms around him. He could barely see her face.
“Hey, lover boy, what is the problema?”
“Nothing, nothing,” he said shortly.
He carried little Jose while Cecelia quietly followed holding her mother’s hand. The music of the previous hour was consumed by the incessant sound of the tree toads beyond the pale. Unaided by electric amplification, it had been there all along, oblivious to human concerns.

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