A group of us were sitting in the bar for happy hour, though the time for discounted drinks had long since passed. We sat swapping stories of bygones and funny memories, just passing the time until we felt sufficiently pickled enough to either decide what we were going to do for the rest of the evening, or just go home while our minds and bodies were still able.
One friend looked at his wife, grinning like a cheshire cat. “Honey you should tell the turtle story.”
She looked back at him in mock annoyance, the kind of look that let you know it was all a schtick they had rehearsed many times before. “I can’t tell that story it’s too depressing.”
“Oh c’mon, it's hilarious.”
“All right, all right, fine. I’ll tell it.”
What follows is the story that she told.
When I was a young girl, only about ten, my father decided to get me and my brother a pet so we had something to take care of and play with. Being a smart enough man to realize that any pet he got for us would ultimately end up his responsibility, he chose to forgo the usual pets like a cat or a dog. Fish were too boring, pony’s took up too much space, and guinea pigs died so often that there was really no use in naming them.
With all this in mind he went to the pet store without telling my brother and I what he was bringing home.
The two of us were literally jumping with excitement when my father pulled back into the driveway. My father got out of the car with something hidden under his coat. We ran up to him as he opened the front door, demanding to see what he was hiding. My father, however, was a showman. He made the whole family sit down on the couch and started the routine which he used for the presentation of all surprises. His words, using only general terms, weaved a feeling of excitement that permeated the entire room. My father had a real talent, he should have been a show hawker at a carnival. He could make the mundane seem amazing. My brother and I were soon sitting on the edge of our seats, shivering with anticipation. My mother, more immune to my father’s antics, sat back with a look in her eye that suggested she needed another glass of wine. Finally, when my brother and I were about ready to explode, he took our new pet out from under his coat. It was a turtle.
By that point we would have been excited if he had brought out a house plant. We oohed and aahed at our new pet and rattled off a thousand questions all at once.
“What does he eat?”
“Where will he live?”
“What can he do?”
“Does he know any tricks?”
My father answered each question with a deep air of knowledge and authority. By the way he talked you would have thought the man was a professional herpetologist. We kids drank it in like gospel. My mother rolled her eyes and went into the kitchen to check dinner and get the aforementioned wine. My father continued with his one man show. He went back out to the car and brought back the various supplies necessary to properly care for our new pet.
A large aquarium was to be our new turtle’s home, which our father proudly put on a shelf on our overly large TV stand. First went in the gravel to line the bottom, then the water. My brother and I formed a fire brigade, filling pitchers in the bathtub and bringing them out to my father who carefully dumped them into the aquarium with a great amount of ceremony. Then came the heat lamp. My father explained how the turtle was cold blooded and did not have a constant body temperature like us warm blooded critters. Next came three large fake plastic plants, a pirates treasure chest, and finally the turtle.
My brother and I argued over what the name of our new turtle would be. My brother wanted to name him Raphael, after his favorite ninja turtle. I wanted to name him Digory, after my favorite character in the Chronicles of Narnia. The debate soon got heated, which for us meant we were screaming and getting close to hitting each other. My father intervened. With great solemnity he reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter. Heads, the name would be Raphael, tails, it would be Digory. We waited with baited breath as the quarter flipped into the air, clear to the ceiling. It seemed to move in slow motion back to the floor. I of course won the coin toss. I’ve always been better at coin tosses than my brother. He took it with his usual grace, insisting on calling the turtle Raphael for a few months until finally acquiescing to the rest of the family’s failure to adapt to his opinion.
Digory seemed to enjoy his new home in the aquarium, swimming around and doing acrobatics to the delight of the entire family. He especially seemed to love the fake plants in the tank. He would often sit, floating in the water, his bottom legs pressed into the mass of fake plastic greenery, stretching his head to keep it above water. My brother and I fed him as we had promised to do, but most of Digory’s more complicated care fell to my father. My mother did nothing with Digory, and really seemed to have no interest in changing that dynamic.
However, as time went on, it became apparent that Digory was not a nice turtle. In fact, Digory was a bit of an asshole. Whenever we took him out of his tank to play with him he’d try to bite us, or scurry off to try and hide under the couch. Over time it got to the point where we entirely lost interest in Digory. No kid wants to play with a pet that is constantly trying to hurt them. In all fairness, Digory didn’t seem to like us much either.
When it came time to clean Digory’s aquarium my father would put him in a bucket of water for safe keeping. Nearly every time Digory would somehow manage to climb out of the bucket. He would then attempt to slip past my father, who was diligently working on cleaning Digory’s home, to make a scurrying escape down the driveway. He was invariably always caught. Turtles are not the fastest of animals.
Soon all of Digory’s care, including feeding, fell to my father. Digory spent most of his time swimming in his aquarium and clinging to his beloved plants, completely ignored by the family except for his basic care. Twelve years passed, my brother and I graduated from high school and moved on to college. My father stayed home and took care of our not so beloved childhood pet that just wouldn’t die. Apparently nobody at the pet store had bothered informing my father about the lengthy lifespan of the average turtle. Digory was like a crotchety bachelor uncle that no one really liked, but we allowed in the house because he was family. Out of all of us, my father was the only who developed any kind of attachment to Digory, but it was probably only due to the time he’d put into taking care of the little bastard, not because of any likable qualities Digory possessed.
One day my father noticed a strange discolored patch on Digory’s shell. Concerned, my father took him to the nearest veterinarian with turtle experience. The vet quickly diagnosed the problem and began quizzing my father on proper turtle care.
“Are you feeding him the proper diet?”
“Oh yes, of course, we only feed him the turtle food they sell at the pet store.”
“Are you keeping his tank clean?”
“Do you have a heat lamp with the proper wattage?”
“He’s cold-blooded you know.”
“Yes, we’ve had him for twelve years now.”
“Are you keeping the water at the proper pH levels?”
“Check it all the time.”
“Is his rock of the proper size?”
“Is his rock big enough for him to get fully out of the water?”
“He needs a rock?”
“Of course he needs a rock, he needs to get out of the water from time to time.”
I can imagine the horrified look on my father’s face when he learned that, up until that moment, unknown bit of turtle trivia. No one had apparently told my father that Digory would need a rock when he purchased him over a decade ago. In twelve years of ownership no one had ever noticed what was missing in the turtle aquarium up on the shelf of our television stand. For twelve years, twelve long years, Digory had desperately treaded water, his only respite, anchoring himself to three fake plastic plants where he could rest and only just barely keep his head above water if he craned his neck. He had tried to escape many times from the sadistic family who kept him in hellish torment, but each time he had been recaptured and put back into the nightmare that was his home. Digory wasn’t an asshole. We were the assholes.
I’m kind of surprised that the vet let my father take Digory home with him. My dad of course was horrified and went out and bought Digory a nice large rock for his aquarium as soon as he left the vet’s office. The moment the rock was placed in the aquarium, Digory climbed out of the water on to it, and did not venture back into the water for at least a month.
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