Suicidal newts

I love amphibians.

Talk about versatility: they can live in water or on land. Although I wouldn’t normally endorse Kevin Costner movies—excluding Dances with Wolves and Field of Dreams—I should confess that Waterworld is a guilty pleasure of mine, along with every other bad action movie produced since the mid-1980s—excluding Eragon and Troy with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom. Costner’s character, known as “Mariner,” has gills behind his ears. He can breathe underwater. We presume that some cataclysmic natural disaster has melted the ice caps and flooded the whole earth, but Mariner can swim to the now submerged cities and bring back the world’s most valuable commodity: dirt.

That’s pretty sweet, you have to admit.

However, long before the movie premiered in 1995, I was nurturing my obsession with frogs. Catching one in the creek behind our house fueled my little tank of boyish joy for weeks. I remember running home with my prize, bursting through the backdoor, and racing around the house until I found my mom.

Mom! Look–what–I–have.”

I would open my hands. “I caught a frog.”

“I see,” she would say. “That’s great, bud! Where did you find him?” She was always so good about mustering enthusiasm.

“Well, I was fishing behind Mrs. Culp’s house, and I got my lure tangled in a tree, so when I waded out to get it, I saw…” and my lengthy explanations continued from there.

I created a trap for the frogs that sat on the edge of a tiny pond draining into the creek. A trashbag with a string tied to the end closest to the pond ran a good distance away to a tree. The plan was to sneak up behind the tree, and if a frog was sitting on the trashbag camouflaged with mud and grass, then I would jerk the string, causing one side of the bag to flip over the frog. I was bummed every time I creeped up army-style, elbows and knees, to discover that all the frogs were safe in the scummy water. All I wanted to do was catch them. There was no need for them to be rude.

I begged my mom and dad for a small aquarium, and they acquiesced. My mom took me to an exotic pet store on Nolensville Road to look at all the rare creatures. I decided on a pinkish albino frog. Maybe he reminded me of myself. If I held him on his back, I could see his purple veins and his pea-sized heart making his translucent chest jump.

Frogs don’t shed. They don’t stink. They have short life spans and thus are useful for teaching little boys about mortality. They are good listeners and never argue. They make eye contact. They never bite.

Frogs are ideal pets.

Newts, on the other hand, are problematic.

I transitioned to Fire-Bellied Newts after the frog died. They seemed pretty cool at first with flames running down their stomachs and their sinuous ways. They were the vintage muscle cars of the amphibian world. Sometimes, you can’t judge the cuckoos by looks alone.

They have an inferiority complex because they only cost $2 apiece at Pass Pets in Cool Springs Mall.

Oh, I was excited at first, taking the knotted plastic bag from the clerk, my mother beaming down at me, my slippery friend suspended in aqueous animation. Everything seemed perfect.

Up to my room went the fire-bellied newt. Into his new home—a plastic bowl complete with two plastic beaches, a plastic palm tree, and a red plastic bridge, suitable for romantic evenings for two or contemplative evenings for one.

Newt paradise.

A week passed, the newt disappeared.

First question: Do cats eat newts?

All you can do is say, “Bad kitty!” and take another trip to the mall.

I got two newts this time. Why not?

They seemed content in Newt Paradise, just chilling all day on the beach, catching some incandescent rays.

We made sure Bubba the Cat stayed away.

A few days and one went missing.

Total newts purchased: 3. Newts accounted for: 1. Newt #3 went AWOL soon after. What was happening?

I found one dried and shriveled into black jerky underneath my bed, another behind my bookcase, and the third, the hardiest of the bunch, all the way across my room between a pair of shoes in my closet. I gave them everything, but all they could think with their limited educational opportunities and delusions of grandeur was “Give me liberty or give me death.” Pathetic.

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