Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Great Turtle Race

By Doug Lieblich * Other Doug Lieblich Posts

My close relationship with my brother, Jerry was partially the product of living in isolation. Although we lived in the heart of Long Island suburbia, our house was situated off a major highway with no neighbors remotely close to our age. Since we lived so close to the highway, our loving—and very protective—Jewish mother ordered a gate around the property. We could explore, so long as it wasn’t in front of a speeding Mack truck. The two of us were literally fenced in—the sole inhabitants in our own gated community. At one point she even installed a second set of deadbolt locks six feet off the ground on all of our doors. This was to prevent us from running onto the street to see this fabled Mack truck we kept hearing about. I didn’t realize this wasn’t on every door in America until I was sixteen.

Since our parents worked on weekdays, Jerry and I lived in a seemingly empty house for large portions of the day. Our father popped pimples in his office while our mother held an independent real estate practice. I remember watching her don her coat, grab her briefcase, and kiss us goodbye as she walked out the door every morning. It took Jerry and me a few months before we realized that the door—and her office—connected to our house. With our parents at work, Jerry and I scampered upstairs and entered our own secret world. I relied on Jerry for company and entertainment value. And as my younger brother, Jerry was just happy to be included in whatever scheme popped out of my head at a given moment.

One such scheme involved the use of pet turtles we had received as gifts from a family friend. There were two turtles and since our house had two sons, it only seemed logical that Jerry and I each pick one as our own private turtle. We named them Leonardo and Raphael, in homage of our role models—the ninja turtles, not the Renaissance painters. I pledged to monitor them with all of the responsibility a hyper active six year old had. This mainly involved talking to it, poking it with a spoon, and other techniques in making sure your pet isn’t dead.

On a particularly uneventful afternoon, I took them out of their Tupperware home and proclaimed the commencement of the Great Turtle Race. This involved a meticulous construction of an obstacle course composed of wooden blocks, toy cars, and discarded board game pieces; it was a turtle death trap, and I am still grateful that my aunt, the crusader for all that is PETA, never saw it.

After we set the course, Jerry and I each acted as a manager for our own turtle client. I managed whichever one I thought was Leonardo; Jerry took the other one.

“Mine’s defective,” Jerry said. We both watched exasperated as Raphael trotted an inch to the first block and immediately retreated into its shell. Although, Leonardo was more active than his counterpart, he somehow fared worse. Jerry was quick to point this out, “He’s defective too.” I couldn’t disagree. In a desperate attempt to escape, Leonardo had lumbered away from the course, hoping to find refuge under the room’s radiator.

I remained optimistic. “He’s not defective. They just need something to race for.” I surveyed the course. It was surely challenging enough for any reptile, but what was it missing? I looked at Leonardo, who was now gnawing on the edge of the radiator.

“I got an idea,” I declared, racing back to their tank. It was in the bathroom, and a constant reminder of a tacit agreement between us and the turtles. Jerry and I would feed and protect them from predators, and in exchange, they would live in a porcelain covered room, dedicated to human excrement.

I returned to the course with two food pellets and placed them on the finishing block. After repositioning the turtles at the starting line, Jerry and I eagerly held them in place. We were cohorts turned competitors, a common dynamic in our relationship at this point in our lives.

“3…2…1…go!” We released. Nothing. I nudged my turtle toward the obstacle. I had to win, especially if it was a game I invented. My brother, always the arbiter of fair play, tended to acquiesce as the runner-up so long as I presented the illusion of a just competition. This time, however, my tactics were too blatant.

“No cheating,” he said, dragging Raphael against his will. An outsider could hear the terrified creature’s nails dig against the carpet, but we had much more important matters to attend. We had a race to win. Not to be outdone, I dragged Leonardo through the course as well, his head fully withdrawn in his shell, praying to the Turtle Gods that his last moments on earth would not be in the sweaty palms of a six-year old boy.

Neither Jerry nor I forsook our principles: I wanted to win at any cost, while he was genuinely interested in which was the faster turtle. Eventually, our antics escalated to us dragging our turtles through the entire course. Sure, we had given them ample time to move…they were after all turtles, but enough was enough. By now the race had devolved into my brother and I pulling two creatures to food they didn’t need through an obstacle course they didn’t want. They became our reluctant living race cars.

I don’t think anyone won the race. In fact, I believe that in a way, we both lost.

It was a terrible day for human-turtle relations.

After a few years, my family inexplicably traded Leonardo and Raphael back to the family friend in exchange for a single slightly larger turtle. I never found out where Leonardo and Raphael actually went. Perhaps like the fence surrounding us from the ubiquitous Mack truck which lurked behind it, the turtle trade was our parents’ way of shielding Jerry and me from the concept of death.

Jerry and I were much less enthused about this new turtle. His unimaginative name, Swimmy, was just one of the many instances of our lack of interest in his existence. We were, moreover, old enough to actually feed him and change his water. These new chores in conjunction with the discovery that he was a biting turtle—with an affinity for human fingers—diminished our efforts in his upkeep. Jerry, holding an innate love for all living things, quickly took my responsibilities, but he couldn’t work miracles for this clearly less exciting turtle.

Over time, Swimmy became even less active and progressively blurred the line between life and death. I privately changed his name to “Floaty,” much to Jerry’s chagrin. Despite Swimmy’s neglected environment, he was our first experience with mortality. Even when Swimmy clearly became a Floaty, Jerry was stuck in a denial phase. Whether it was hibernating, thinking, or just being “decomposed in half for a while,” Jerry’s attachment with animals made it difficult for him to accept their demise. An unfortunate result of his empathy was the presence of a rotting turtle carcass floating in our bathroom.

I tried not to let the sight bother me. It wasn’t really my turtle; it wasn’t really my problem. But every time I shuffled into the bathroom, anxious to relieve myself from nature’s call, I casually gazed to my left, seeing Swimmy’s remains drifting next to the sink like a green tea-saucer full of fungus. Go ahead and watch, I thought, see what I care. I washed my hands paying no heed to the corpse that silently taunted me. But as I left the bathroom, I couldn’t help but glance back and see if its shiftless eyes followed me on my exit.

I decided to wait it out. Someone would surely get fed up enough to deal it. Days passed, then a week, but still no turtle undertaker. Even our housekeeper who occasionally cleaned the bathroom left it there. Call me spoiled, but this baffled me. This meant that she had to enter the bathroom with the intention of sanitizing it—which as a top priority includes the removal of any dead or near-dead animals—and deliberately kept the chunks of reptile there. She even lifted the tank and cleaned the tile underneath it before setting the carcass back on the counter.

My parents never harped on the problem. They never nagged us to go “throw out Swimmy.” In fact, they never even addressed his death. They just stopped buying turtle food. I wondered about their inaction. Did they simply not care? Did they want to keep it as a memento? Perhaps it was to serve as a warning to future bathroom pets. I eventually realized, however, that they didn’t have the heart to break the news to Jerry and crush the boy’s spirit. It was just so much easier to leave the tank there than willingly expose your ten year-old to his first death of a loved one.

After two weeks, I concluded that the task of convincing Jerry of Swimmy’s transformation to a Floaty was left to me. Luckily, I had another scheme for him.

We loaded Swimmy into the toilet with formality and gravitas. I assured Jerry that it was a “burial at sea.” At the time, I was twelve years old, and just old enough to see the humor and irony in the situation. There was, of course, nothing solemn about flushing a beloved member of the family down the toilet. On some level, I knew this and was having a good laugh. The image of the dead turtle circling its way through the labyrinth of pipes which comprised our sewage system also appealed to my budding absurdist and slightly moribund sense of humor.

But part of me really did want to comfort my brother even if that comfort was partly a ruse. After all, wasn’t this the role of being an elder brother, to protect one’s younger sibling from the cruel realities of life and to turn the banal into the fantastical? The key, of course, was not to betray even the slightest sense of comedy and laughter. As long as I gave the ceremony the dignity it deserved, all would be well.

“He was a good turtle,” I told my brother.

“Yeah, he was,” he replied.

Slowly, as respectfully as I could, I placed my right arm around him, and with the left I reached for the handle of the toilet and flushed.

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