Carroll Dale Short

TURBO’S VERY LIFE

By Carroll Dale Short

      At six on Friday evening I’m walking home with my son Gabe after picking him up for the first time from the apartment where Jeanette, my wife, ex-wife, lives now. A mere eight blocks away, for better or worse, and all uphill.

      The short November days are long gone by six o’clock, a fact I hadn’t noticed yet this year, staying at my windowless office until nine or ten every night trying to produce more money to give to the bank, the lawyers, et al. I do remember that the sky holds an eerie kind of reddish-purple glow way past sunset these particular weeks of fall. Which can make you think, if you’re a child, that something terrible is about to happen to the world. Especially along a street like this one, with its dark, towering, ruined houses resembling witch-houses, dim lamps in their attic windows. Houses where invisible old people live.

      But Gabe is undaunted. He proceeds a good four steps ahead of me with his skeptical brown eyes paving the way, like a feeler I have put out into the world. He carries his insulated coat, one sleeve dragging the sidewalk.

      “It’s getting cold,” I say. “Better put your coat on.”

      He turns and looks at me. He’s bony and dark, the image of me, and day after tomorrow he’ll be eight years old. “Put my goat on?” he says. His eyes gleam with the mischief. “I don’t have a goat.”

      “I’ll get your goat,” I say to him, and chase him for the next half block before I wrestle him up into my arms and tickle his bare belly until he gives in, admits I said coat. I set him down and hold the sleeves out for him and I think, it’s not going to be so bad.

      Once he’s zipped up he races out front again, maintaining that careful margin of independence. Gabe has never been a hold-your-hand kind of walker, or even a fatherly-arm-draped-across-the-shoulder walker. He needs room.

      I thought everybody understood that, especially Jeanette. Until I saw the Polaroids, of course. The week she moved out, she trumped an all-day argument by showing me two pieces of hinged poster board to which she’d affixed dozens of Polaroid snapshots, like a science project. Each little picture showed Gabe and me walking together, in various weathers and locations, and the common theme, as Jeanette pointed out, was that I didn’t touch my son in any of them. My own son.

      She showed me her exhibit, she said, in case I had any ideas about trying to take Gabe away from her. She meant filing for custody, which, unknown to her, I’d done the day before.

      I comforted myself by imagining the look on the face of the divorce judge when he saw the terrible incriminating evidence he’d been promised. Considering the perversions and debaucheries he hears recounted in a typical week, I hoped that the quaint crime of walking too far from my son would somehow make him sympathetic to my position. Of course, it didn’t work out that way.

      My position, which had started the all-day fight with Jeanette, was that since Gabe has a super-high IQ I was the logical choice for custody because I have a teaching degree. Which prompted Jeanette to point out that I had a bicycle, too, but I didn’t use it either. Referring to the one she gave me on our three-years-ago anniversary.

      That’s the thing. Stay in love and all the objects in the world mind their own business; turn your head for a minute and they resolve themselves into flinty metaphors of failure and self-delusion.

      “How long have you got me for?” Gabe asks, as we turn the corner onto my street.

      “Forty-eight hours, partner,” I say. “What kind of birthday things do you want to do?”

      He just shrugs, the same way he did when Jeanette and I told him we’d be living in separate houses. No tears, still, and it worries me. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Try, and he’ll shrug. It’s all right, he’ll say. I’m okay.

      Maybe this weekend, with just the two of us for two days, I’ll get it out of him. The books all say he needs to get it out.

      It’s clear from looking at Gabe and me that we’re both new at this business of visitation. Look the word up, sometime. It says, “An official visit, as for inspection; a severe trial or affliction; a special dispensation of divine favor or wrath.”

      Curiously apt, I’d say.

      As I’m unlocking the door there’s a thundering of feet and two figures lunge at us out of the darkness of the shrubbery. Hunched, scar-faced old men with rotten yellow teeth. “Hhhhh,” they hiss.

      “Hi, Michael,” Gabe says, faking a yawn. “Hi, Jay.”

      The masks come off. “We brought you a present,” Jay says. He flashes his demonic grin and runs to retrieve something stashed in the bushes.

      Inside, the phone is ringing. It’s Jeanette. “He needs to wear his coat,” she says. No hello or anything.

      “He’s wearing it,” I say.

      “Well, he wasn’t.”

      “He’s in good hands,” I say.

      “Don’t let him run with his mouth open in the cold air,” she says. “He’s bad about that.”

      I promise her I’ll stick a sock in his mouth if we go out. The dial tone returns.

      The instant I hang up, the phone rings again. Mel, at the office. “Let me run a few ideas by you, Jimbo,” he says, and he does.

      When I find Gabe he’s filling the bathtub with water. There are dead leaves and pine straw floating in the tub. He sees my bewilderment.

      “It’s for Turbo,” he says.

      “Turbo?”

      He sloshes a hand down under the surface of the leaves, soaking his coat sleeve to the elbow, and brings up a struggling handful of what appears to be translucent pink plastic. Except that it waves a small claw in the air.

      “A crawfish,” I say, unnecessarily.

      “Crayfish,” Gabe corrects. “Jay gave him to me.”

      “He can’t live in the tub, partner.”

      “Well,” he says, “see what you think about this…” He puts Turbo back in the water and becomes a miniature Mel, arms crossed, visionary, making a sale. “I figure since he’s come from a great big creek, he’s really scared right now because this is so different. Okay? But if the tub can be like a little creek, just for tonight, it’ll help him get used to the aquarium.”

      “We don’t have an aquarium anymore. Your mother got that.”

      “Yeah, we do. Mike found one in a dumpster.”

      “A dumpster?”

      “Well, the motor part’s broken. But the glass thing’s okay.”

      The phone again. Myra, this time.

      “Hi, sport,” Myra says. “Have I got a picnic for you.”

      “I know. The word’s all over town.”

      “How’s the kiddo?” she asks.

      “Seems to be doing fine. It’s hard to tell, though, with Gabe."

      Myra sighs sympathetically, although she’s never had children. She’s twice divorced, has her hair cut like Peter Pan, and drives a blue jeep. She’s the receptionist for our building.

      “Tell me the honest truth,” she says. “Do you think it’s, like, too soon?”

      “Oh, no. Ten a.m. is fine.”

      “Ha, ha,” she says. “You know what I mean.”

      “No. What do you mean?”

      “I mean, too soon for him to see you with a w-o-m-a-n.”

      “Myra, it’s just a picnic.”

      Wrong thing to say. I can hear her deciding whether or not to pout. But her best nature wins.

      “All I can say is, you’d better be hungry,” she says.

      When I find Gabe he’s sitting in the middle of the bed, polishing the blackened aquarium with a scouring pad. “That might scratch the glass,” I tell him. “Try a paper towel.”

      The phone again. Mel, at the office.

      “They’re gonna kill us, Jimbo,” he says. “They’re gonna shoot us dead.”

      What he means is, he’s flying to Albuquerque tomorrow morning to bid on a job and has just discovered that the presentation we worked on all week is somehow based on the first set of specifications they gave us, rather than the revised set they Federal Expressed us Wednesday. Mel says that if I could run to the office for just an hour or two and get him started refiguring on the right track, there might be hope. I tell him I’ve got Gabe here, and the clock’s running, and if there’s any way to…

      “No sweat,” Mel says. “I’ll come to your place.” The dial tone again.

      So much for the dinner at a quiet restaurant I’d planned with Gabe, candlelight and the soft chiming of silverware, which would induce us to confide in each other like old war buddies met up by chance at a resort somewhere. Tomorrow, though. Tomorrow night for sure.

      While I’m chopping the frozen pizza into strips small enough to fit in the toaster oven I’m thinking for some reason about a story in a detective magazine I read at the laundromat, a woman who shot her husband and then carved up the corpse to fit manageably into two big suitcases. They caught her at the airport when a sharp-eyed attendant noticed et cetera dripping from et cetera.

      It’s Jeanette’s new kitchen I begrudge her most of all, for some reason. The old apartment building itself is almost falling down. It was, I think, some bizarre hotel in the 1920s, built into the face of the mountain with a great view of the city skyline. It’s constructed like a castle, with stone turrets, a parapet, the works. But her four humble rooms have been scoured to a holiday sheen and hung with ferns, the genteel but fertile poverty of separation you see everywhere these days, and the biggest of all the rooms (she gave me a tour) is the kitchen.

      An arsenal of familiar cooking pots hangs from the ceiling. The old butcher-block table from our basement is piled with fresh green vegetables like a magazine ad (maybe for my benefit, but still) and she makes us two cups of herbal tea from small metal tea-eggs with chains as fine as jewelry. The oven has steamed the windows, and one radiant drop of sweat hangs from the tip of Jeanette’s nose as she stirs honey into the tea. She wears her hair in a ponytail, and looks to be keeping off the twenty pounds she lost for her departure. She’s having a dinner party tonight, she said. I suspect for her new love interest, if she has one, and a few of our traitorous friends.

      When the pizza is ready Gabe isn’t hungry.

      Mel rings the doorbell five staccato times and then lets himself in, starts spreading out the battle plans and a six-pack of beer on the dining room table. I have no way of knowing that the battle will not be decided until, if my watch is right, 1:45 a.m., or that Mel will point out confidentially, as he leaves, that it’s none of his business but with a kid in the house now I ought to clean out that damned nasty bathtub. He swears he saw something swimming in it.

* * *

At 10 a.m. we’re jouncing up the street of witches in Myra’s blue jeep, bound for the interstate and a wilderness somewhere she knows of. We jounce past The Castle. “That’s my new house,” Gabe tells Myra nonchalantly. “Nice!” she says, with her eyebrows raised for effect. She’s driving.

      At a quarter to twelve we’re still gung-ho up the interstate, surrounded by mountains. Whenever I glance at Gabe in the back seat he looks at me accusingly. Turbo seemed to be under the weather this morning, slow and listless in his new glass tank, and Gabe wanted to bring him along for safekeeping. I talked him out of it. It would be messy and sloshy, I told him, and what’s more we’re not going very far, so we ought to be home right after lunch. Myra had said it wasn’t far.

      At noon I ask her, “What's the name of this place again?” Hoping for something Indian and dangerous-sounding to get Gabe's imagination off the lonesome crawfish.

      “It doesn’t have a name,” she says. “But it’s not far.”

      To pass the time Myra teaches us songs she learned in the Girl Scouts. The songs have either one quick verse or fifty slow ones, and by the time we finish “There's a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea,” (a bad choice) with its spick on the speck on the eye of the fly on the frog on the log, the contribution of Gabe’s mild voice to our harmony has gradually disappeared, and I can see in the mirror that the topic has put him in mind of Turbo again. He licks his finger and is rubbing a clear spot of vision in the plastic side window of the jeep, probably thinking how much the translucent dirty plastic looks, in the sun, like a crawfish shell. Crayfish shell.

      At that point Myra whips off onto an exit. “Almost there, kiddo,” she says, a point she reinforces by teaching us the quick silly type of songs again instead of the underwater epics.

      About ten miles down the two-lane she turns off onto a dirt trail made so invisible by underbrush that at first I think we’ve run off the road, but the pine trees part to let us through. After a mile or two on the red clay trail we pull up at a homemade gate of welded pipe that blocks our way.

      “Uno momento,” Myra says, hopping out. She stands at the gate in her hiking boots and tight jeans, twirling a combination on the lock. She has a rear end like a teenage boy.

      “Not far,” Gabe says from the back seat, his voice righteous with irony.

      A mile past the gate the trail dead-ends into a little sunlit meadow. It’s the perfect place for a picnic. Myra parks the jeep and we get out and stretch. Here at last, I think.

      Then Myra says, “We can walk the rest of the way. It’s not far.” I feel Gabe’s eyes blaming my back.

      At this point, I believe if lunch were just a sack of hamburgers we had gotten on the interstate I could find the balls to say no, not a step farther, no, we’ll eat standing right here and then get the hell home. I could wrestle her for the keys and subdue her and drive us back myself if it came to that.

      But Myra opens the tailgate and whisks out an Indian blanket to uncover a forest of beige Tupperware in the back. She stands beaming like a magician of domesticity whose trick is successful at last, after years of failures.

      “Oh, boy,” I say, with all the enthusiasm I can muster.

      The picnic fits neatly into three green backpacks she produces and straps onto us. I lock the tailgate, and we are hiking downhill through the undergrowth toward a waterfall she promises us we will not believe.

      On the way, she shows Gabe the hoofprint of a young deer preserved in a patch of mud. She shows him how to call some kind of bird by blowing into your fist which you shape like an ocarina and then wiggle your fingers. She points out a jagged cave in the side of a rock bluff where she says the Creek Indians once stationed watchmen because you can see the whole valley from there. I remark that I didn't know there were Greek Indians. A little humor. Myra and Gabe look at me, uncomprehending, and hike on.

      We smell the waterfall before we see it, a moistness and freshness hanging in the air like the scent of rain, though the sky is blue and dry overhead. When the trail turns the last curve and we bend aside the branches to go through, the sight actually takes my breath away. A torrent of falling white water, taller than the building my office is in. The spray is a constant faint rainbow in the sunlight, just like the waterfalls in cigarette ads.

      Gabe is transfixed, joyous. Myra looks at me, her eyes shy as a girl at a dance.

      “Is all right?” she asks.

      “Beautiful,” I say. I squeeze her shoulder. She winks at me.

      “You guys go look around. I'll be setting the table.”

      When we get back, she’s heaping our plates—two for each of us—with all the delicacies from the Tupperware. There’s gourmet potato salad and a spiced kind of gourmet slaw with caraway seeds. There’s paella and fried cheese straws and peach chutney and zucchini florentine as thin and crisp as potato chips.

      And little pink gourmet shrimp, boiled in their shells.

      I’m watching Gabe's face as he spots them. He picks a shrimp up gently by the tail and stares at it. He looks at Myra, then me, as if we have scavenged the dumpsters of some malevolent crawfish abortionist.

      “What’s this?”

      “That’s shrimp, hon,” Myra says. “Here, you want me to peel yours for you?”

      “Gabe’s not much of a seafood eater,” I put in.

      His manners win out over what must be building up inside of him. With his fork he inconspicuously rakes the shrimp into a separate pile on the plate and proceeds to eat everything else heartily, commenting from time to time on how good this or that is, asking the name of a spice he’s never tasted before. He’s a charmer, Gabe is. Especially when somebody’s trying as hard to please as Myra. He picks up pretty fast on people’s feelings. He scares me sometimes, the grasp he has of things. Lord knows he didn’t get it from his mother.

      By the time we finish eating and explore the waterfall some more and rinse out our plates in the creek, the sun is sinking behind the mountain and the valleys are getting dark so fast you can actually see the darkness rising in them, like a slow flood. I tell Myra it’s been paradise, but we’d better head back to town.

      Soon we’re standing at the jeep in the deepening twilight, the sounds of night birds beginning in the woods, and a kind of howl that’s too high-pitched to be a dog. I’m waiting for Myra to unlock the tailgate. Then I realize that Myra is waiting for me to unlock the tailgate.

      I feel in my pockets for the keys. Front pockets, back pockets. Jacket pockets, shirt pockets.

      Myra’s sure she gave the keys to me, because didn’t I lock the tailgate? You have to have a key to lock the tailgate. My mind is a blank. I make Myra check in all her pockets, just in case. And Gabe too, just in case. Zero. The sky is darkening by the minute. Gabe sighs, biblically, meaning If we hadst been home, my crawfish would not have died.

      “Maybe they fell out of my pocket on the trail,” I say. “You don’t have a flashlight, do you?”

      Myra gives a little lopsided grin and points out that the flashlight is inside the jeep. The locked jeep. She does, however, have a cigarette lighter.

      We take the trail again on hands and knees, me with the lighter aloft like a crippled Statue of Liberty, until we’ve traced all the way to the waterfall, whose rainbow has long departed.

      Back at the jeep again, still keyless, Myra sighs and says there’s only one thing to do. She brandishes a butcher knife from her backpack and saws a fist-sized hole in the jeep’s plastic side window. She unlocks the door from inside, grabs her flashlight, releases the hood latch, and in an instant is squatting under the raised hood hugging the flashlight in the crook of one arm, scraping at something in the dark recesses of the motor with her butcher knife.

      “Hit the accelerator one time, hard,” she says. Gabe jumps in ahead of me to do it. There’s a crackle of sparks and the motor roars to life. “All right,” Gabe says, clapping his hands. Myra slams the hood and hops in the driver’s seat like a bank robber making a getaway, and before I can ask her how she learned to hot-wire a jeep we’re bouncing up the hill to the blessed highway, and home.

      When we get there Gabe is a bullet, straight for his room. Turbo is alive in his glass tank. But something’s still not right. The crawfish is as listless as before, maybe more so. He doesn’t move unless you poke a ruler or something toward him, and then just enough to get out of its way.

      Maybe he’s hungry, I suggest. Gabe doubts it. But to satisfy me, he searches the refrigerator and comes back with a slice of bacon which we shred into the shapes of giant amoebas and drop into the water of the tank. Turbo sits stock-still, his claws drooping, stoic amid the slow rain of pig fat.

      A huge weariness comes over me. I go to take a shower, but the tub is still inhabited by pine straw and dead leaves. I settle for a cup of coffee and some aspirin instead.

      There’s still time, if we hurry, for a late-night supper at the hypothetical restaurant where Gabe will let his guard down and level with me about how much he’s hurting. When I pass by his room, though, I can tell he’s settled in for the evening.

      The glass tank has been slid to the center of his desk, everything else on the desktop cleared away except the lamp, which he’s angled so that the bulb is suspended directly over the crawfish in question, like an operating room. Gabe sits raptly at the tank, with his back against the idle air conditioner, his chin in his hands. Everywhere but the one bright spot, the room fades off into gloom and the smell of raw bacon.

      From where I stand Gabe’s face is magnified by the water of the tank. His expression as he looks down at little Turbo reminds me of the faces of giants in monster movies the first time they encounter tiny human beings: puzzlement and suspicion, which are kept in check for the moment by an overwhelming tenderness and kindness of heart.

      “Come look,” Gabe says. “He’s transparent.”

      I kneel at the bright tank, opposite from him, and he’s right. Under a strong light you can see clear through a crawfish, to the clouded jellies and gristles that make up its life—you can watch its small brain think, its heart quiver, see the small dark globules of digested food migrating on faith from its thorax to its tail.

      “You ready for some pizza?” I ask him. He shakes his huge magnified head slowly, keeping his eyes on Turbo.

      “I don’t guess people take crayfish to veterinarians,” he says half-heartedly, suddenly looking through the glass at me.

      In desperation he reaches one hand into the tank and flutters his fingers under the surface of the water, kicking up a froth of bubbles. You would expect a crawfish to scurry at that, but instead he sits motionless, which can’t be a good sign. A moment later, though, as I get up to leave the room, the crawfish propels himself frantically around the circumference of the tank like someone running laps.

      For an instant Gabe’s sad expanded face shows hope, but it’s short-lived. Turbo settles down exactly where he was, and no amount of disturbing the water can make him move.

      I remind Gabe it’s not long till bedtime, and that we’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow—presents to open, and all that. I remind him that there’s pizza in the refrigerator if he changes his mind about being hungry. He nods in the preoccupied way which means, if you know him well enough, that he needs a little solitude to sort things out in his mind.

      My plan is to read for a while in bed, upstairs, and then come down and give him the two-minute warning that it’s time for lights-out. But my lack of sleep is beginning to tell on me, and as soon as I settle down on the pillow and start reading, the house thermostat kicks on and the furnace vent envelops my bed in a tent of warm air with a sound like a pleasant surf.

      The next thing I know I am awakened by an ambulance siren somewhere on the next block. The red numbers of the clock say 3 a.m.

      Guilt rouses me to go check on Gabe. The first oddity I notice is that the doorknob to his room is like ice, which puts me in mind of movies about exorcism, until I hear the low vibrating roar of the old window air conditioner by his bed. When I open the door it’s like walking into a refrigerator.

      Gabe is nowhere to be seen. His bed has been stripped of all its covers. Then I spot the cocoon of blankets on the floor, wedged between the bed frame and the wall. The only thing that protrudes from the covers is Gabe’s nose and guileless forehead, giving out a rhythmic snore that’s barely audible against the blast of arctic air from the window unit.

      The desk lamp is still on, spotlighting the fish tank. But tank, desk, and all have been pushed directly underneath the air conditioner vent and the vent adjusted downward so that the full blast of air troubles the water of the tank, making a froth of bubbles on its surface.

      Turbo is huddled in the tank’s farthest corner with his claws crossed against himself for warmth. His long white antennae thresh each other like knitting needles, and the carapace of his tail shivers where it touches the glass. He looks up to me for deliverance.

      I reach to switch the air conditioner off, but my hand hits a cardboard sign taped across the controls. In Gabe’s handwriting, the sign says:

      I THINK I HAVE FOUND OUT WHAT’S WRONG. HE’S BREATHING ALL THE AIR OUT OF THE WATER. THIS WILL BLOW MORE AIR IN UNTIL MORNING. THEN WE CAN TAKE HIM BACK. PLEASE DON’T TURN THIS OFF!!!!! TURBO’S VERY LIFE COULD BE AT STATE.

      I tap on the tank. Turbo runs a frantic lap and then settles into his corner again, shaking. He is definitely breathing fresh air now. There is nothing for me to do but go back to bed.

* * *

      The creek runs through a corner of the park so angled and hilly the city’s mowing machines can’t get to it. It stays grown up in bushes and vines except in the very dead of winter, which of course is another month or two away.

      The Sunday sun is rising in my face and I’m trying to keep my footing in the mess of brown-green growth while balancing the sloshing tank against my chest and simultaneously thinking of some soothing wisdom to impart to Gabe, who’s trooping along behind me, somber and official, like an acolyte in church.

      All the speeches that come to mind are reruns of what I’ve said throughout the years when a parakeet died, or a dog got run over, or his grandmother was taken by her second stroke. Grand, liberal, dust-to-dust stuff, none of which applies to this, I’m just now realizing, because nothing has died.

      Turbo is rejuvenated by last night’s airing. He's doing a strong stately ballet inside the glass, the sunshine streaming through him. We sit on the bank of the creek and watch him for several minutes. Uphill, the tall lights of the softball fields catch the risen sun, as if someone’s switching them on one at a time.

      Neither of us says anything.

      Finally Gabe stands up, makes sure he has a solid footing in the dirt, and uses both hands to empty the tank into the creek, which sends Turbo swirling downstream in a cloud of new mud. He watches him go, dry-eyed as you please, with one small sad wave of his hand, almost like a salute.

      Name me another kid who could handle it this well, not be crying to Jeanette in the night, or pitching fits to keep the crawfish in an aquarium with fish, trying against hope to teach it not to eat them, or a dozen other desperate measures kids fall in love with at strained times. Gabe knows this way is best, and that’s that.

      I put my arm lightly around his shoulder and for once he doesn’t shrug it off. We stand watching the creek in the sun until the rusted Coke cans at the edge become uncomfortably visible, and the empty whiskey bottle, and the used condom, and we head back toward the car at the same instant, without a signal or a word.

      We’re halfway home when I start feeling guilty for not having planned a big party with all of his friends. A surprise party, maybe, with Michael and Jay and the rest jumping out from behind furniture, popping balloons. But at the time, the simple way seemed better. All you can go on is what seems best at the time.

      When we pull into the driveway I notice the sides of his eyes are a little shiny. He’s crying, in the odd silent way he has. No change of expression, so that you have to really know him to realize it.

      I’m thinking he’ll make a good father.

# # #

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Copyright © 2010 Carroll Dale Short