My brother Ray and his two sons once got a Volkswagen Beetle inside a spare bedroom, all to prove that they could--if they wanted to--get a ship inside a bottle.
To those who knew of the Volkswagen incident, the takeover of Ray’s kitchen by a frightened turtle did not seem unusual.
On the day of the turtle, Ray was hosting a family gathering. The highlight was to be the announcement by Matt, our youngest brother, of the results of his first date with Connie, a pretty, intelligent, educated young woman, who had come highly recommended but was as yet unmet.
The presence of the turtle threatened to upstage the announcement, which was fine with Matt. He was not fond of addressing the family, a task that, more and more, amounted to public speaking.
The turtle had not planned to upstage anyone. In a harrowing rescue, Ray’s two boys, Tom and Stuart, had saved the turtle from an attack by birds. The near-victim sat now in the castle keep of the kitchen sink, its head and limbs drawn in.
By contrast, Tom and Stuart were all heads and limbs. Dressed in sports jerseys, they dribbled imaginary basketballs, practiced head-butts on throw pillows, and when asked to pass something at table, insisted the requester “go long.”
Having saved the turtle, Tom and Stuart considered themselves protectors of the reptile world, a state of grace they exercised by peering at the turtle over the sink edge. They didn’t want to bother the creature, but they didn’t want to miss his entrance either.
After several minutes of uneventful study, Stuart banged on the sink, counting on the tendency of all creatures to answer a knock at the door.
“He’s got to learn to trust you,” Paul said, without so much as a glance at the sink. Paul was married to Billie, my younger sister.
Billie was a resourceful woman. Wanting to finish her education but finding college expensive, she married a know-it-all and kept him close at hand.
“Where was the turtle when you found him?” I asked.
Stuart made a dive-bombing motion with his hand. “Out back. Won’t eat now. Too afraid.” Growing up with his father, Stuart had acquired Ray’s speech pattern: a combination of telegram terseness and Burma-Shave style.
Hungry or not, the turtle sat amid morsels of carrot, cheese, corn, and noodle, the results of a Berlin Airlift-style feeding performed earlier that day. Despite the bounty, the turtle fasted, seemingly determined to wait out Tom and Stuart’s vigil, tying up the sink in the process.
Ray had custody of the lakeside rambler and of his two sons. Left to themselves, their little family did good deeds of a kind. According to family bylaws, aiding an animal in danger was the highest and best use of any household amenity.
Not everyone had taken the oath. My wife, my sister Billie and her husband, and several other siblings had arrived early to prepare food for the occasion, only to find the kitchen sink pressed into service as a wildlife preserve.
“You’ve got the pots, you’ve got the pans. Can’t we share the sink?” Stuart asked, a question that has gone into family lore as an example of reason and folly sharing adjacent sentences.
Tom and Stuart might have worn the sports jerseys in the family, but those wearing aprons called the shots. Their instructions were clear: evict all wildlife.
I picked up the turtle, carried it casserole-style to the beach, and set it down in the sand. The boys came along, protesting that the move meant certain death.
The turtle kept his extremities drawn in; suspects in the bird community kept watch overhead. The boys were right. We had returned to--if not recreated--the scene of the dive-bomb attack.
I looked back at the house. Ray was visible in the window of his home office, where he would spend most of the day, eventually sampling a plate brought in to him. Ray and I were a lot alike, but his life required more phone calls.
He slid open the window and reminded his boys of their single chore of the day, untarping and distributing a pile of beach furniture. The pile included two plastic garden chairs, one director’s chair, an office swivel, and a tangle of folded aluminum models.
The boys arranged the chairs in the usual circle near the water. I had them leave an extra place alongside mine and moved the turtle there.
“Careful,” I said when Stuart tried to use the turtle’s place as a shortcut. “The turtle is down here.”
The boys claimed chairs of their own, but within seconds they were out of them.
Stuart squatted over the turtle, turned to his brother, and said, “Hey, Quarterback.”
They were exuberant children, especially Stuart. He was wearing a baseball cap and a football jersey, which made him dressed for two sports at once. Later he would be dressed for three, when he donned the roller blades he wore inside the house.
Tom had exchanged his jersey for a sun hat, a T-shirt, and a vest taken from one of Ray’s suits. The result was a very young Art Carney.
Matt carried a cooler down from the house and set it in the center of the circle. Topped with liquor and tumblers, the cooler resembled some extruded-plastic treasure chest. I told him that the turtle was joining us and pointed out the reptile; Matt said that was OK. The blind-date lecture was still on his mind.
I forget Matt’s exact age, but as the youngest of all the brothers, he was our link with adolescence, despite his own advancing years.
My wife and my sister Billie came out to the circle of chairs to hear Matt. The date, a blind one, had occurred just the other day and we all wanted to hear about it.
I notified the group that the turtle was joining us, but my announcement was lost in the noise of popped corks and clattering ice cubes--the pistol shots and pieces of eight of our plastic treasure chest.
Drinks fixed, we took seats. The chairs, none of them plumb, sat cockeyed in the sand, giving our gathering a wave-tossed look.
“What about Ray?” Matt asked. He waved at the house.
Ray slid open his window, lowered his phone, and told us to start without him.
Matt addressed the group and was awarded their instant attention. He hemmed and hawed until told to get on with it, at which point he beat around the bush until told to stop that, too.
Finally, he spoke carefully, choosing his words as if this were no ordinary date but the Conference at Yalta and Matt and Connie the Big Two.
Know-it-all Paul watched closely, cooling his orator heels.
In the end, Matt skimped on the details of the outing but elaborated on the result: Yes, he would, in fact, by all accounts, be seeing Connie again.
The announcement was met by applause, except from Paul, who waited until it subsided.
“How do you know?” he asked. He sat on the office swivel but occupied it grand inquisitor style. Billie occupied a stool at his side.
“I mean, how did you arrive at that conclusion?” Paul asked, removing his glasses and folding them. He wore a scarf under the collar of his pale-blue shirt.
“She gave me a sign,” Matt said.
“Really? A finger twirled at the side of the head is a sign, though hardly a flattering one.”
Matt made a fist, and I thought he was going to clobber Paul. Instead he extended the thumb and little finger, making what amounted to a hand-puppet phone.
“She did this,” Matt said, bringing the hand to his cheek. He shook it to indicate a ring.
The applause was overwhelming.
“Clever girl, this Connie,” Paul said, letting the matter drop.
We settled in, adjusting the angle of our chairs. The ground being soft sand, adjustment was infinite.
Someone asked whether others had seen a certain movie.
Billie told us of a traffic jam that was so bad, people were driving on the sidewalk.
Paul pointed out that pedestrians rarely seem to mind a traffic jam. “They just go their merry way,” he said. Paul’s commute to work was a long one, and he often brought up the subject of pedestrians and their charmed lives.
Other relatives arrived, pulled out chairs, and sat down, making our family circle more of a family blob.
The boys approached Matt and tried to steal him away. Matt’s age was nearest theirs, and he could keep up with them. They took hold of his wrists and tried to pull him.
The action got Billie’s husband stirring. After a couple of drinks, Paul started filling people’s glasses, with varying degrees of accuracy. He was no restaurant sommelier, more a bull in a wine cellar. Over the years, we’ve developed an early-warning system for Paul, consisting of open outcry: “Paul is up...Paul is moving...Paul at three o’clock.”
Fortunately, Ray had invested in metal for most of his cocktail hardware, so nothing was going to break.
“Ray used to serve martinis out here,” Matt said, “with little onions.”
“Gibsons,” Paul said, correcting him.
My wife picked up the broken stem of what might have been a Gibson glass. We passed it around as if we were a team of archeologists.
The boys continued to pester Matt, wanting to ride bicycles with him, out on the dirt lane in front of the house. Tom was the more convincing of the two. He had donned a bicycle helmet, and it made the requested bike ride all but a fait accompli.
The bicycle helmet resembled the turtle, which I had completely forgotten. I looked down and found the creature gone. In its place was the start of a smooth, dished-out path, extending from beside my chair, over open beach, and directly into the lake, a distance of three or four yards.
There were paw prints alongside either edge of the path, where the turtle had deployed its limbs. Its belly accounted for the dished-out effect.
The turtle must have made its escape on the sly, while we were discussing the news of the day, but escape didn’t make sense. We had saved the turtle, given it food, shelter, and protection. Moreover, it was almost dinnertime. This being Ray’s world, the reptile might well have been given a place at table.
I got down on my knees and studied the beeline path, from its start next to my chair to its immersion in the murky depths.
I sat back on my haunches. An announcement was in order, but I wasn’t sure what to say. The law of the jungle explained much of the world, but it didn’t seem to account for this turtle and its love affair with danger.
I took out a coin, tapped my tumbler, and got the attention of the group. I pointed to the turtle-blazed trail. Its destination, the lake bottom, needed no introduction, nor did the birds that were circling. The turtle must have caught them off guard as well. They squawked as if they’d been robbed.
The boys let go of Matt and joined others in kneeling in place. Despite Stuart’s baseball cap and football jersey and his brother’s Ed Norton get-up, the boys were models of devotion.
Paul, tipsy, had dropped to his knees in any case, and when he seemed stable, the rest of us followed suit.
While I was deciding what to say, Billie came over and knelt beside me, her eyebrows raised and her lips pursed. She nodded to indicate Matt, who was on his knees as well.
“I wish Matt’s Connie could be here to see this,” she said.
Ray was at his office window, a puzzled look on his face. I gave him a thumbs-up sign to say everything was OK.
There was a thud at the other end of our circle. Paul, having filled his own glass, had fallen over.
Several of us righted him and dusted his face.
“This might be a good time to get the chairs back into a circle,” Billie said, “a nice 180-degree circle.”
Paul sputtered, but whether he was responding to Billie’s remark or to having the ground come out from under him, none of us could say.
I looked at the house, only to foreshorten my view. Ray was out of his office and walking toward us, carrying one of those green lid-covered dishes meant for cooking.
“Connie was here,” he said.
“Where?” Billie asked.
“She had to go. Dropped this off. Casserole.”
“Oh yeah,” Matt said. “I told her to stop by if she could.”
“Stop by?” Billie asked.
“If she could.”
Ray opened the lid and everyone bent over for a look.
“What did she say?” Billie asked.
“We looked out my window. You all were kneeling, so I said, ‘Must be time for grace.’ She didn’t want to interrupt that. She’s an awful nice girl. Dressed just so.”
“Ray, we were sitting around an ice chest. How is that ‘time for grace’?” Billie asked.
“You were kneeling.”
“We say grace at the table,” Billie said.
“I had to think fast,” Ray said. “What were you all doing, everybody on their knees?”
“Praying for the turtle,” Stuart said.
Billie closed her eyes.
“I’ll try to catch Connie,” Matt said. He ran to the front of the house. I followed and so did the boys.
We reached the dirt lane that extended all the way to the main road. There was no traffic on either. Connie and her car were gone. Road dust hung in the air.
“She must have been going fast,” Tom said.
We studied the tire tracks along the edges of the lane, but any of them might have been Connie’s.
For good measure, Matt called out her name.
We went through the house to rejoin the family. Billie and my wife were in Ray’s office, sniffing the air, as if by identifying a fragrance they could recreate the girl.
Everyone else was in the kitchen. Ray was still holding the casserole, unsure what to do. The kitchen counters were so full that there wasn’t room to set a new dish down.
Ray brightened. He must have seen what I saw, space in the sink.
Billie came into the kitchen, followed by Paul, who had not completely recovered from his tumble, the one during which, kneeling in prayer, he had pitched forward in the sand. The dusting he received from others had been cursory, and his face still bore granules.
Billie, on the other hand, had our visitor in mind.
She said to whoever would listen, “Connie and that turtle--they fled.”
The room went quiet.
“Her expert casserole is in that damned sink now.”
Stuart piped up. “No birds will get it there.”
“The boy is right,” Ray said.
We all joined in, acknowledging the accuracy of Stuart’s remark, pointing out that the dish was protected not only from airborne attack, but also from those of land or sea. But these observations, once made, died away.
Paul went behind Billie, drew her to him, and laid his head on her shoulder. An erudite man, he was tired.
Billie was having none of it. “Connie and that reptile--they fled the scene.”
Paul held onto her, buying time, organizing his facts.