The frog took a deep gulp of beer. His bright white throat—so white it was probably bleached, Milton thought—flapped as he swallowed.
“Scorpions!?” he said. “Let me tell you what happened to a buddy of mine. He’s on his way home—and this is a good, hard-working frog—when a big, scraggly yellow scorpion, with hairs coming out of every part of his shell and everything, asks him for a ride across the river.”
The frog slapped his hand down on the bar, flexing his long, spry fingers.
“So my buddy tells him to fuck off, he doesn’t want to get stung. Scorpion says, ‘look, I know you’ve heard a lot about scorpions, but really, I’ve got no reason to hurt you. If I sting you, you’ll drown, and I’ll die too.’ And my buddy, he’s a generous guy, a bit naive, too nice for his own good, really, starts to feel guilty, and so he offers him a ride. And what do you know, three quarters off the way across, he feels a sting. And he says ‘why did you do that?’ Scorpion says, ‘I’m a scorpion.'”
The frog slowly glanced up and down the bar. His eyes caught Milton’s, and bugged out a little. “Really,” said the frog, “right in that river over there. Three years ago today.”
Milton got his beer and went to sit down with the other toads.
“You hear all that?” said Milton.
“Yep. The old scorpion story.”
“You believe him?”
“Not the way he tells it. Nobody knows what anybody said in that river.”
“But that a scorpion killed that frog?”
“Here’s the thing,” said Milton. “I don’t like scorpions either. But you know that frog said some shit. At the very least. First, scorpions aren’t stupid. They got short tempers, sure. You can’t piss ’em off. But if he wanted to kill that frog, he could do it on dry land as soon as they were getting out.”
“He could kill him before”
“Well then he wouldn’t get across the river.”
“He didn’t get across the river.”
“And here’s the other thing. There’s no way a frog was doing anyone a favor like that. When’s the last time you seen a frog volunteer a favor, not to mention a dangerous one, just anything that’s out of their way. Hell, they’d rather not see anyone got helped at all even if it’s no bother to them. They’d rather see us down in the muck. Lets them think they’re better than us.”
“You know how you know frogs hate helping other animals? They keep telling stories like that one. The whole point of the goddamn story is that a frog’s not supposed to help anyone. Doesn’t matter if it’s true, at that point. They’ll tell it because it makes them look like saints and excuses them being assholes.”
A silence set in for a second as toads sipped their beers. An old, fat, bumpy, dull-red toad at the end of the table drew his hands together and spoke.
“I can see it happening,” he said. “I don’t know. You’re a scorpion. You just want a ride across the river. This frog looks at you like you’re about to kill him. Like that’s all you are. You’re pushed to the point where you have to argue that you’re sane. You’re trying to convince him—and maybe even failing—that you won’t kill yourself just to sting him.”
A few salamanders and a newt cocked their head to listen.
“And so eventually he lets you on. And he lets you know he’s doing you a big favor. And that he trusts you. And you just know he’s gonna run back and tell his friends, puff out his frog chest, about how big he was for giving a ride to a scorpion. How magnanimous. And you realize that this is who you have to rely on just to get a ride across the river. And you think that whatever’s on the other side, some things will never change. And you just look at the frog’s stupid, bigotted head in front of you, and you think, well, it would serve you right if I was crazy. And you begin to hate that the only thing holding you back is your own self interest. And you think ‘sting, I’ll show you a sting’. And there it goes.”
There was another silence. Some of the animals were nodding.
“What the fuck do you know about being a scorpion?” said Milton.
“I can imagine” said the red toad.
“Yeah, you’re imagining a way for his story to be true. While you seem wiser and more generous. Hell, you’re acting like a goddamn frog.”
“Shit,” said the red toad. “Yeah, I am.”
“Fuck it” said Milton “See, a frog would never admit that.”
“Listen to yourself,” said the red toad. “You sound like a frog, too.”
“Yeah,” said Milton, “Fuck us all.”
The sun was going down and the crab behind the counter turned up the music. The toads sipped their beers. Over in the doorway, a few more frogs were walking in. Little green tree frogs, poison dart frogs, a glass frog. Heads were turning. The toads sipped their beers and shrank lower in their chairs, tried to stay out of the way. The big goliath toad working the door looked at them.
“Well,” said the red toad. “It’s time to go.”