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Turtle


ISSUE:  Spring 2002

Neil and Karen rise at seven, before their children and before his parents, and creep through the old beach house as quietly as possible, the sand on the kitchen linoleum sticking to their bare feet. On the porch, where no one will hear them, they put on their shoes and step down onto the sun-bleached shells of the driveway.

In the car, Karen rolls down the window and lets the warm wind blow over her. The beach road is still quiet, though the parking lot of the diner across from the Winn Dixie is full. As they drive past the diner, inside, Karen can see a waitress, her hair pinned into a bun, leaning to pour coffee into a fat man’s cup. Karen can tell from the way his mouth moves that he is laughing. Then the car is past the restaurant, moving up the strip toward the turn-off that leads through the back inlets of the lagoons, to marshland, and to the Gulf Shores golf course.

The sunlight on the cream stucco condos lining the beach transforms their ugliness, turning them the color of the sand dunes below, a gold with shadows of lavender. The colors of the sand and the towers are so similar in this light that the buildings seem to have risen up from the shoreline naturally, as though the sand has shaped itself. On the rails of the balconies of the condominiums, bright beach towels hang drying in the breeze. It’s so quiet, Karen thinks. I can’t remember when it was ever so quiet. In the moment, she finds that all the things she has been worrying about slip from her, and that a peace—a peace she has not felt with her husband for a long time—slips over her with the warm air.

The golf bags are in the trunk of the car, and when they arrive at the course, they pay their greens’ fees and load the clubs onto one of the golf carts snoozing in a herd above the first tee. The town is in the middle of a bad drought, but the course is well-kept and lush, and as Karen and Neil tee off, the only sounds are of another cart, distant and out of sight beyond the trees, and the slap of sprinklers at the edge of the green. Karen watches Neil’s swing—the tension shooting through his arms and knees, his long, lean legs and chiseled features. He is a handsome 38. She knows how good they look together; her dark hair is only beginning to gray. She knows that where they go as a couple they command admiration. This has always pleased her, and, as Neil’s drive goes long and hits the middle of the green cleanly, she finds that it still pleases her; she wishes for witnesses.

It is a good wish, comforting to her, and Karen holds it close as they play, speaking rarely, focused on the matter at hand. The silence between them feels good, comfortable—the silence of long-time friends who know that their contentment is shared. They have shared many silences in the past months. None of them have felt this soft.

On the fifth hole, Neil pulls up his practice swing. He has been startled by an alligator near the fairway, but he’s played the course often enough that he watches the creature for only a moment before re-situating himself and playing through. The golf course is set in the middle of marshy land; alligators are not an unusual sight. This one schlumps off heavily as they draw closer. They watch it heave its knobby body into the water, suddenly graceful, and Neil turns to Karen and smiles. It is a bright boyish smile that says what she has been thinking: This is a good day.

They play well. Neil breaks 80, good for him on this course, and Karen hits 100, which she cannot remember doing before. She is especially pleased because it has been a long time since she has played; golf is Neil’s game. She only started playing to spend more time with him.

Loading the clubs back into the car, she feels truly happy for the first time since they arrived at the beach. They have been vacationing for four days now, and only now does she feel herself unwinding. She knows that the glow she feels is just the pleasure of a familiar activity, once shared and enjoyed for the company, and now enjoyed because she has played well. She does not allow herself to muse over this change, but cuts the thought off before it can become harder, gel into something unpleasant.

Instead she thinks about how golf has stymied her repeatedly for years, replacing a decent score with a wretched one week after week. Today she has done better than ever, and her game has been effortless, almost careless. She had not thought about it—she had just played, watching the sun come up, pausing to watch the birds and the herd of white-tail deer that grazed on the far hills of the green.

She is tired now, and sweaty, and when she wipes the back of her neck, sweat and dead skin come away in tiny curls in her palm, minute shreds of gray putty. She wipes them off on her shorts as she thinks of a shower back at the beach house, a swim later. She closes her eyes in the car as Neil drives them back through the inlets and marshland.

Nearing the main road, she feels the car slowing and she opens her eyes. “What is it?” she says to Neil. He has pulled to the side of the road above a small marshy stream and is getting out of the car. “Can’t you wait til we get back to the house?”

“Look,” he says, from beside the car. He points at something behind them, on the road.

Karen unlocks her door and gets out, feeling immediately the change between the air-conditioned space of the car and the now sweltering heat of the marsh. Neil is bent over, 20 feet behind the car, staring down at a turtle. It is a fairly big one, about the size of a hat box, and it’s moving off the road and into the grass, heading slowly for the stream beyond it. Its back is marked with yellow hexagons that fit neatly into the corrugations that interlock to form the arc of its shell.

Neil reaches down and picks it up gingerly.

“What are you doing?” Karen says, alarmed, aware of the sudden sharpness in her voice but unable to hush it. “Leave it alone, Neil.”

“I’m going to bring it back to the house to show the girls,” Neil says, almost whispering, gazing down at the turtle with something like awe. “Lily will get a kick out of it.”

“Neil, I don’t think it’s—”

Neil gives her a look, and Karen stops herself. This is a good day, she reminds herself. They have played golf. They have not argued. She has felt like a companion for the first time in months, and Neil is happy too. “Okay,” she says, stepping back into the car and closing the door. “Okay,” she says again softly, lying back in the seat and closing her eyes again. Neil is still behind the car with the turtle, so he cannot hear the repetition and the exhaustion in her voice. She knows he would take her second “okay” to mean something else entirely, a resignation to more than the turtle, a tone he would resent.

Behind her, she hears Neil’s key scrape into the lock of the car’s trunk. She looks in the rear-view mirror and sees him lift the turtle—it’s clawing at the air with its feet and its pointy tail seems to be wagging—into the trunk. A car flashes by, slowing just enough for Karen to catch the gawking faces at its windows, before Neil appears at the door and settles himself back behind the wheel, checking the road behind him before pulling out.

“Won’t it pee?” Karen asks.

Neil doesn’t answer. He seems jumpy, giddy, and he doesn’t look at her when he speaks. “Did you see it? Isn’t it beautiful?” He’s driving above the speed limit, racing toward the strip and the beach house. The endless saw-grass of the marsh gives way to sea-oats and condos and the dark blue of the water, and then they are pulling up the shell-and-sand driveway. Karen imagines the turtle, frantic, pissing gallons of murky urine into the trunk of the car and all over the golf clubs. Still, she finds herself charmed—even now—by Neil and his enthusiasm, his desire to share this new form of life with the kids.

He parks the car and pops the trunk. Karen gets out and peers in at the turtle, which peers balefully out into the bright world at her. “Look at it,” Neil says, at her shoulder.

“I see it, Neil,” she says, and turns to climb the wooden steps into the beach house.

Inside, Neil’s father, Henry, is sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee. Karen can tell by his face that he’s in a clear period—for a few hours, at least, he will be lucid and witty, able to recognize his grandchildren and understand his surroundings.

“How was your game?” he asks.

“Good. I beat my record, I think.”

“I knew you’d get the hang of it eventually,” Henry smiles. His is a land face, ugly but likable, totally unlike the sharp good looks Neil had inherited from his mother.

“Where’s Edna?” Karen asks. Outside, beneath the beach-house, she hears the hose come on, spray for a few seconds, then stop.

“Shopping,” Henry grimaces. “Where’s Neil?”

“He’s got a new friend.”

Henry’s smile fades. “You don’t mean—”

“No, nothing like that,” she says.

Neil appears at the screen door and elbows it open. “Hey Dad,” he says. “How’re you feeling?” He holds the turtle out at arm’s length, his hands clasped around its middle. “Check it out.”

Karen sees three red scratches on Neil’s right arm that hadn’t been there a few minutes before.

“Oh, jeez, that’s a big feller,” Henry says, his gravelly voice filling with the motion of his smile. “Where’d you find it?”

“Side of the road. Near the bayou.”

“Box turtle, huh?”

“Yep,” says Neil, setting it on the linoleum floor of the kitchen. “Remember when we used to see them sunning on logs when we’d go fishing?” Henry nods. “Where’re the kids?” Neil asks.

“Still snoozing, I reckon.”

“Karen, would you go wake them up? Please,” Neil says.

Karen goes down the hall to the room where Cass and Lily are staying. She knocks softly. When no one answers, she opens the door. Cass is awake, lying in bed reading. She is wearing flowered underpants and a T-shirt. “What is it?” she says to Karen. Her voice is displeased, as it has been for most of the trip.

“Come on, get up. It’s nearly noon. Dad brought something back to show you.” Karen moves to the other bed, where a lump under the quilt indicates Lily.

“She’s not asleep,” Cass says.

The lump stiffens and then Lily throws back the covers, a huge grin flashing from her face. “Surprise,” she cries. Her long hair is tangled from sleep.

“Oh!” Karen says, patting her chest, “you shouldn’t scare me like that, Lily!”

“You weren’t really scared,” Lily pouts. “Cass spoiled it.”

Cass rolls her eyes and then lowers them back to her book.

“Lily, you wanna get up and see what Dad found? It’s really neat. You’ll love it,” Karen tells her, trying to inject excitement into her voice.

Lily hits the floor running and vanishes down the hall. For a moment there is silence, and then a squeal from the kitchen: “Oh, neat!”

“What is it?” Cass asks.

“Come see.” Karen goes back into the kitchen. On the floor, the turtle has pulled itself mostly into its shell and Lily is squatting beside it, mesmerized.

“Can I touch it?”

“You bet,” Neil says, “but just touch its shell, okay, not around its head or feet.”

Lily runs her fingers over the knobby shell. “Wow,” she whispers. “He’s so pretty.”

Karen looks at Neil. His face is lit with pleasure and she feels herself catch it from him. Lily’s eyes are so wide.

Cass appears in the doorway, and she looks down at the turtle. Karen can tell, to her amusement, that Cass is interested but doesn’t want to seem too enthused. She’s at that stage where any enthusiasm feels like self-betrayal—Karen can remember this feeling, from her youth and from days in the past year.

“What kind is it?” Lily asks.

“It’s a box turtle,” Neil says. “Your granddad and I used to see them all the time when we went fishing when I was little. Never let me catch ‘em though, didja Dad?” He grins towards Henry.

“Little as me?” Lily asks.

“Maybe a little bigger. I guess we started fishing on Bailey Creek when I was around nine, Dad?”

“ ‘Bout then, yep.”

“Look at the patterns,” Cass says, bending in closer. “It looks like it was painted by someone.”

“God painted it, right Daddy?” Lily asks, patting its shell. The turtle’s wattled legs bend under the weight of her small hand.

“Right,” Neil says.

Cass grunts and turns back to the bedroom, and Karen feels it almost as a physical pain. It’s the way Cass has been lately, and Karen can’t figure out whether it is God or Neil that Cass doesn’t want to be suckered by. She figures probably both. Lately Cass has become hostile towards sincerity, hostile towards sentiment of any kind, seeming to regard sincerity itself as some sort of childish phase that some adults trick themselves into accepting. Pleasure seems to cause her embarrassment.

She can remember when she and Neil had first brought Cass to the beach. Cass had been five, and every day she had run to the water, thrilled, jumping up and down in the waves, trying to prove she could stand up against them, always failing, but always ready to try again. It was silly, but it had touched Karen, moved her to laughter and joy at Cass—her first child, her precocious and stubborn daughter, her little face a sweet mix of her own features and Neil’s. The memory of Cass throwing herself against the waves touches Karen even now, but differently. Cass had long ago recognized the futility of jumping against the waves. She had grown out of such romantic and joyful leaping early, and now, Karen suspects, will regard all such leaps with scorn.

Lily carries the turtle out onto the wooden deck above the beach, and Karen watches her playing with it for a few moments longer before the view of the shimmering beach makes her remember how sweaty she is. She retreats to the bathroom for a shower, leaving Neil and Henry in the kitchen watching Lily through the screen door.

The cool water pouring down over her, the magnolia-scented lather, and the white noise of the water on the tile brings back to her some of the peace she felt that morning. She lets herself succumb to its easy comfort.

She showers for 10 minutes, and is still standing beneath the water, her eyes closed and her hair full of lather, when she suddenly realizes that the high-pitched squeaks she has been hearing for a few seconds—squeaks she assumed were coming from the old waterpipes of the beach house straining to produce a decent shower—are actually coming from the kitchen. When she turns off the shower to hear better, she realizes that the squeaks are shrieks, and that they have been muffled by the water and the bathroom door and by her own sense of relaxation, the stupor induced by water and meaningless sound.

Terror shoots through her like a blade, accompanied almost immediately by the lesser prick of guilt. She has left Lily alone with the turtle and Neil probably hasn’t kept his eyes on her. Maybe the turtle clawed or bit her—maybe she’s bleeding—damn Neil, he gets scratched by the animal and he still gives it to his kid to play with—maybe Lily will have to have a tetanus shot—at least Lily will associate this wounding with Neil rather than me—

She stumbles out of the shower, her hair still full of shampoo, and grabs a towel off the rack to cover herself before running out into the kitchen. Neil is standing over Lily, holding the turtle in his hands. Lily is wailing, her arms stretched toward the turtle, tears streaming down her contorted red face. Henry sits at the kitchen table, still drinking his coffee, shaking his head.

“What’s going on?” Karen asks desperately, shaking Lily by the shoulders. “Lily, are you hurt? Sweetie? Did the turtle bite you?”

Lily’s mouth opens and closes with screams she has lost the breath for. She appears to be strangling.

“Neil, what happened?”

“She’s fine, Karen, calm down,” Neil says.

“She doesn’t look fine—look at her, does she look fine?” Lily’s mouth still fishes in the air. The scream, when it comes, will be a big one, and Karen braces for it.

“I’m taking the turtle back to where we found it,” Neil says. “She doesn’t understand that she can’t keep it here as a pet.”

Lily’s scream lights up the air, charging it with awful electricity. Relief floods over Karen. “Lily, honey—we can’t—” Lily pushes her away, swinging her fists wildly.

“I love him,” she wails. “I want him to stay here with me. You can’t take him back.” She begins shrieking again. Her eyes bulge with the effort of the noise.

“Lily, he’ll die if we don’t take him back to the marsh,” Neil says reasonably. “We can’t feed him what he needs to eat. He needs to eat things in the marsh, fish and bugs and stuff that we don’t have here.”

“We can buy them!” she protests.

Henry chuckles and Neil throws him a warning look. “No, we can’t buy them, Lily. They don’t sell what he needs anywhere. Now I have to take him back. You don’t want him to die, do you?”

Lily weeps incoherently.

“For heaven’s sakes, Neil, can’t we keep him here a little longer, until she calms down?” Karen asks. Soap is dripping into her eyes, blinding her. “He’s not going to die in the next 10 minutes, is he? Take him outside and put him under the hose again.”

“The hose? He doesn’t need the damn hose, Karen. He needs to get back to where he came from.”

“Why’d you bring him here and let her get attached to him if he needs the marsh so badly? I swear, Neil, you can be such a damn sadist. Let her play with him for a little while longer.”

“And let her get more attached? Give her an hour or two to name him, maybe put her fucking doll hats on him?” Neil snaps. Despite its lack of identifiable genitalia, Karen notices, the turtle has somehow become male in Neil’s mind, but she knows better than to point this out. Lily, who unlike her mother and sister is still surprised by her father’s occasional bursts of profanity, has stopped crying and is watching them, open-mouthed.

“Okay, well, then you deal with it.” Karen says. “I’m going back to my shower. I thought she was being murdered.” She goes back down the hall to the bathroom, and closes the door behind her, but she doesn’t turn on the shower. She stands silently at the door and listens; after a few moments Lily’s screams start up again. Karen is exhausted. Her eyes are stinging terribly. She steps back into the shower and turns on the water.

When she comes out, Neil has left the apartment. Henry is out on the deck, and when she goes out to join him, she notices a pungent odor and a dark wet spot beginning to dry into the rough wood. “Where’s Lily?” she asks Henry.

“In her room, I think,” Henry says. His eyes are unfocused, slightly vacant. He’s drifting again, she realizes. Within half an hour he’ll be asleep or incoherent. “Karen, could you get me a drink?” he says softly.

“What kind?”

“The usual.”

Karen goes back into the kitchen, to mix up a gin and tonic. Henry has been drinking more as his Alzheimer’s has gotten worse. The doctors have said no booze, but he ignores them and expects his family to do the same. She pours some iced-tea for herself and then hears the front door open—Neil, back from the marsh.

It has gotten even hotter since they were out in the morning and Neil is covered in sweat. It pours from his brow and his armpits are marked with circles that extend down the sides of his torso. He doesn’t say anything and she turns away from him to bring Henry his drink. “It peed on the deck,” she says with her back to him, but when she turns to see his response, he has disappeared into the bathroom.

That night, Lily is still enraged and silent. Cass is irritable, and Neil has hardly spoken except to suggest that they go to Hazel’s Nook for dinner. It is one of Lily’s favorite places to eat.

They drive in silence on the winding marsh roads, the fading light reddening the western sky. Hazel’s is crowded and loud and relieves them of the need to make conversation. They eat and eat—fried fish, shrimp, baked potatoes, coleslaw—and when they finish, they all seem happier. Karen feels some of her energy returning and she smiles to herself as they get into the car to drive back to the house.

“Look for marsh rabbits,” Neil tells the kids as they speed through the darkness. There were once scores of rabbits on this road at twilight, grazing by the roadside, startling easily at cars and disappearing into the brush. But tonight Karen sees none, and she wonders whether their absence is due to the late hour or something else—hurricanes and land development have taken their toll on the rabbit population. The dark underbrush reveals none of the glowing eyes she can remember seeing on previous trips.

As they round a curve close to the intersection where the marsh road meets the strip, she sees something at the side of the road, a still shape, half-on, half-off the grass. It lies a few feet from the stream that flows under the road. Beyond the little stream is the marsh, the saw-grass, the dark, brackish water, the nests of herons and egrets hidden in the reeds. She turns to see the shape better as they whip past it, and when she catches Neil’s face she knows that he has seen it too.

At the light at the intersection, Neil speaks. “I’m sure it wasn’t the same one.”

She hears the hurt in his voice and she sees, clearly, the right words in her head: Yes, I’m sure it wasn’t. But she says, feeling the words drop from her mouth into her lap, “What does it matter?”

She turns her head slightly to see the kids in the back seat, wondering if they’ve seen. But Cass is staring vacantly out the window, and Lily is sprawled against the car door, her head tilted back, asleep. Karen can see Lily’s eyelids vibrating, and she imagines, suddenly, what her daughter may be dreaming: she is underwater, her eyes taking in the silhouettes of floating vegetation, her great flippers cutting swathes in the dark water, her heavy shelled body perfect and graceful, moving toward a light at the surface.

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