A turtle is a curious choice for a house pet if one were to think about it, but for me, a dad hamstrung by the realities of divorce, I found the fulfillment of my two young children’s silly desires, and their subsequent happiness, to be of the upmost importance. The pleasures my children received from gifts notwithstanding, the “give” of such wants was also necessary for facilitating the “take,” which in my case was the removal of the idea “Because Daddy only sees you half the week, you needn’t be thoroughly touched and developed by Daddy’s meaningful experiences and critical theories and general life philosophies (no matter, or maybe because of, how contrarian they might seem at first blush to societal norms).” So I guess you could say that, at the end of the day, it was because of the judicial limitations of custody that we ended up with a pet turtle.
A note about my children and their innocent role in this whole ordeal: being at the impressionable ages of three and five, the kids were only doing what was required of them within our economic model and our society in that they merely did what was asked of them and allowed themselves to be vulnerable to shiny commercials and to be greatly influenced by cartoon violence. After all, all we can do—any of us—is to play our roles.
Back to the poor creature; it wasn’t even an hour after receiving the surprise gift of a real-life turtle before the children’s understanding was made healthy—ruined were their sugary-cereal sweet, romantic ideals—with the realities of what owning a reptile entailed. Gathered around it, as if waiting for it to bound into their laps and lick their faces, I was peppered with:
“It’s just sitting there; why won’t it move?”
“Why won’t it come out of its shell?”
“Maybe it needs some mutagen?”
“It’s too stinky” (referring to the alfalfa and the environment in which it was caged, which likely included traces of its own waste).
And, even if the turtle didn’t know it, I recognized the damning of the last observation even if I didn’t immediately see it. It might as well have been an order to sign the thing’s death warrant.
As the parent responsible for this case, I can admit that I might have mismanaged my children’s expectations and, because of that, the beginning of our era as a ‘pet turtle family’ was indeed underwhelming and off to an inauspicious start. My children were expecting a teenager and what they got instead was the disappointment of old age, as if they’d been introduced to a great-great-grandparent.
After the initial interest waned to disappointment and from disappointment to outright apathy, the children were content to leave our elderly turtle to its own devices, which in this case was literally its own device: to sit alone and idle for hours within its shell, deep in the reassuring warmth of itself and its memories. I didn’t see much of its head except in brief moments when the turtle thought nobody was looking, but what I did see was evidence of a sad and miserable existence. Its beady, close-set eyes comprised the majority of a face which was shrunken with the passage of time. Save for its tongue, an empty mouth made the turtle’s beak look like that of an elderly person with no teeth, and even rarer than its face was the view of its arms and legs whose worn and aged skin wrinkled into a million leathery plates separated by deep earthen ravines, like the mudcracks formed from a drought. Its long nails were a queer sight, grown in dirty pools of water and sharpened from being glanced off the exoskeletons of insects and digging in loose dirt—the good ole days of a time long passed—and ill-suited for the Berber carpet of a pathetic, single-dad-esque two-bedroom apartment. The old turtle was content to be left alone. Ostensibly, it came out of its shell to eat and shit and whatever else, but only when we weren’t around—at least that’s what I deduced from the evidence of dwindling amounts of food, spilled water and clumped-together bedding. After a week of giving it space, I decided the turtle must be encouraged (read: forced) to leave its cage and exist in the open space of my apartment. The terrarium seemed small and I felt the crisis of conscience that a good litigator would have felt had he condemned an innocent, as I had done, to this cruel cell. The small rectangular box had glass walls and sat on the floor near my front door. I took the top off of it and I placed the turtle, contracted and dense inside its shell, on the living room floor, thinking it might like to stretch its legs in the rec yard. I took a few steps back to watch its next move and I may have even harbored the romantic and silly notion that the turtle would gallop around my apartment and need the constant attention of my kids and I, announcing its arrival with a noise when joining us in whatever room we happened to be whiling away in, or its old nails clicking on the board of a game around which we all sat Indian-style; I had momentarily forgotten this institutionalized thing was as old as a grandmother and just as confused by the surroundings of modern man.
Leaving the room for a moment to attend to my responsibilities, it happened that I got busy and so engrossed within the world of my own mind that I completely forgot about the turtle being out of its box, and so it was out of the box the entire of the night as the children and I slept in deep comfort. I slept in late the next morning and eventually woke in the early afternoon, which was about two hours after my children had awoken. Upon seeing me enter the living room, which they’d taken the opportunity to destroy while I was asleep, my youngest child ran up to me and informed me with a shout, “The turtle is gone!” and I immediately remembered that I had forgotten to put the turtle away.
Groggy, I performed a cursory search for the missing party and it quickly became clear that the turtle had hidden itself somewhere on the property. In the natural state of disarray and corruption that my rooms were in, even without the disaster from the morning, hiding for a bit wasn’t a difficult feat at all and, considering we were talking about a slow and ancient thing like this turtle, I even thought it a bit cute and whimsical.
I’ll look for him after work—he’s had plenty of water and food and, besides, don’t they store that stuff in their humps or shells or something? I think to myself. I’m a gross and idiotic person.
** ** ** **
That first evening when I came home from work I had been too tired and so delayed the hunt until morning. Then the next morning turned into an acceptance of some guilt that the delay would need to further continue and the search would have to take place that night after work. Then I found myself out at an “after-work function,” as I liked to rationalize away the work nights I spent howling at the moon, and I didn’t come home. By this time I’d resorted to leaving rank little pebbles of food randomly in the corners of all my rooms because I wasn’t sure which room he’d chosen for his base—that is, when I thought about it—because, like after settling an elderly relation with dementia into her home, I was thinking of the turtle less and less. More time would pass and with it my ennui grew; I had all but forgotten the strength and urgency in which I had resolved to behave, though on some level I still knew the turtle was a living creature with the carbon-based needs of water and food and the entitlement of respect for its life to at least be sought after, or its blood would surely be on my hands. It was over a week later when I put a final foot down on the matter as I lie in bed:
Tomorrow I’m going to invest whatever time is necessary to find this damn turtle!, I committed, before immediately falling asleep.
The next morning I woke up late for work. I kicked off the sheets and revealed my naked body, my member so galvanized in the last act of sleep that it hurt, like a snake whose girth had grown and was now too full for its existing skin but was without the ability to molt its old skin for a larger, more comfortable fit. Goddamn reptiles, I mumbled with hot breath.
A quick glance in every direction at the sheer amount of shit strewn about and I knew I again wouldn’t have the time to look, except for maybe my daily peek under the beds. I kicked piles of clothes and other assortments of content that gathered in clusters on the floor of my apartment before this time really meaning business when I said I would commit (for real this time, I swear!) after work. That evening, true to the pattern of the past, like an alcoholic’s histrionic protestations that this time it would be different and they were serious about sobriety, I came home from a day which was so full of duty that it was an unreasonable expectation to remember, much less even think about, a turtle and what it might or might not be doing.
Then the weeks passed and, with respect to all aspects of my life, they passed at an uncomfortably fast clip. In the time elapsed the apartment had grown around me like an abandoned lot, my dirty clothes overgrown eyesores like weeds and the paper trash of fast food littering the natural scenery, and I felt like the apartment had begun to rust from the moisture left from my raining apathy and passivity. Never once asking about the turtle or its abrupt and continued absence, the kids continued their studies and play without a hitch, but even still, as of late I’d gotten in the habit of lunging into the apartment face-first, ready to confront the stench of death and decay while shielding my kids by making them wait outside until the sweep of my nose gave an “all clear,” though each time I was met only with the stale air of a cheap man who refused to employ his air conditioner and not that of a rotting reptile. Even so, I often sniffed hard at various spots of air, like an idiot dog not knowing what he was doing, with the “This is it!” thought of smelling something and though I’d waited too long and the turtle was surely dead by now, I was never alerted to the whereabouts of those hard-shelled remains.
Time passed as it was foretold that it would and eventually through the course of living I hired a maid and, even after her work of getting my apartment up to a sanitary code, there was still no sign of the turtle. Besides a clean house, all that was left with regards to the case of the turtle was an apartment masked entirely with the smell of disinfectant, so I was then out of cards to play. My ace-in-the-hole—the upset, disgust, or fury of a maid being forced to discover and deal with my irresponsible neglect and lazy homicide—was beaten.
I was no longer weeks removed from the situation but months when the season turned and the sun began to again assert its dominance over the region, and by the time I renewed my lease for another year, there was still no turtle. One day that spring as I combed my hair for work, out of the corner of my eye I saw an ant on my bathroom counter. I smashed it with a forefinger before wiping the paste that remained on the back of my jeans. The next morning almost the exact same thing happened, only this time I let the ant live, allowing it to work its way through the countertop maze that was discarded bar receipts, toothbrushes and coin money as I watched. I thought for sure the ants were the bearers of the news of the turtle’s death, like buzzards circling the sky above a fallen carcass, but alas, that proved to be a false correlation. I went on with my life in the comfort of not being made to be held accountable. Later during this time, because it was almost a statistical impossibility that the turtle could have gotten out of the apartment, I came to accept not only the promise that the turtle was assuredly dead but that the blame for said death sat at my feet. I dealt with my inhumanity by simple ignorance and deciding to be content, just as long as I didn’t have to smell the death for which I was responsible or deal with an excavation.
And then it happened: a time came when I had completely forgotten about the old, dead turtle. It was sometime after this time (how could I know definitively when—I’d forgotten, remember?) that my son ran into my room yelling to me, “I found the turtle, I found my turtle!” He grabbed my wrist and led me to his room before a small mattress that had sat unused for years. I lifted the thing and, like those sad cases you hear about when an elderly person is found dead days later in their recliner with the television roaring all around the corpse, there was the turtle.
While the turtle sat there, stationary in its death, for the first prolonged time I saw its arms and head were halfway out of its shell. Motioning for the kids to move back, I dropped to my hands and knees and put my ear to the carpet to better peer into its old home. I quickly confirmed the turtle was deceased and ushered the kids out of the room amid the morbid curiosity of youth:
“Is it dead?”
“Is it dead?”
“Is it dead?”
I took an old college T-shirt, worn with holes and which was a poor modern fit for yours truly, and wrapped the turtle within it. I was hesitant and felt creepy handling this long-dead thing. In the corner, on the area of the floor where the turtle had settled in to begin its eternity, there was a crop circle-like effect on the taupe carpet. The area that the dead turtle was sitting in was a lighter color and looked compressed or pushed down with weight, where around this the carpet was a darker, fluffier texture. Looking down upon that area, like the blast damage of a projectile, I was revisited with the ghosts of immense guilt, remorse and displeasure as if I’d been given a responsibility and was the steward of this thing’s soul but had let some great spirit of the universe down. After wrapping the turtle in the shirt I took it outside and set it down in a patch of grass where I hoped a predator would find and eat it. I then took a Sharpie and I wrote on a hard stock of resume paper “R.I.P. Tortuga” for some unknown and weird reason (it just felt right, I’d later say) and taped it to the wall above the crop circle.
When it was done, I joined my children at the dinner table in full expectation that their naïve and innocent eyes would be touched with a heavy sorrow for the loss, not of life, but of faith and confidence in their old man and my ability to develop and protect them from this world full of absentee turtle owners. Even more, my heart broke when I thought the eyes I would meet and that would return the gaze into my own weary ones would be giving a look wrought with nervousness or apprehension or even, daresay, suspicion! “Are we the next victims of your stewardship—are we your last remaining turtles now?” they would ask, and, “Is this the kind of providence we can come to expect from you, our father?”
Instead of the deserved criticism levied against my guilty and insufficient person, the children didn’t seem to notice or care about the dead turtle and what it might mean for them. With respect to the strange sign that for some reason read “La Tortuga,” the only reference made by the two illiterate children was the remark of my youngest: “I knew it,” she said after I confirmed that, indeed, the turtle had passed. At the discovery of this inherent lack of interest I was both relieved and confused.
The universe had a funny way about it; for all the undue worry about how my deep flaws and imperfections were going to adversely affect my children’s development and potential, and for all my unfounded fear that my deep flaws and imperfections were going to cause my children to lose their respect and awe for me—their father—my children instead sat at the table asking for silly, innocuous things like chocolate milk and cookies while our covenant of unconditional love remained intact. I know that is what it was because I recognized it. It was the same unconditional love that had taken the reins that controlled my life from me, and it was the same unconditional love that kept me from my slow suicide. The love for my children was my spiritual food and water.
Oh shit, I thought as a realization settled within me. I am their turtle.