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I decide to act quickly, before I have the good sense to second-guess myself. I scoop the tortoise off the passenger seat and set him down on a flat patch of granite. He weighs far less than I anticipated — I resist the urge to fling him into the surf like a discus. “There you go, my boy. Liberty,” I declare. “Make a run for it!”
Fred does not budge. He thrusts his head out from under his shield and cranes his neck, but immediately recoils. Something in the balmy sea breeze is apparently not to his liking.
“Now’s your chance, Freddy. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” I warn him. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
The tortoise’s head emerges again, although his legs remain concealed. I take this as a promising sign. “What are you waiting for?” I ask. I settle down on my haunches beside Fred and start to waddle toward the bed of bog-reeds that fringes the adjoining marsh. “Follow me, my boy. If you don’t act now, you’ll regret it.”
No luck. My corduroys are soaked through at the knees, but the dopey tortoise hasn’t moved a goddam inch. I’m risking a lot for this fellow, and he doesn’t have the decency to make an effort.
“Get going,” I order. “Before somebody gets angry and runs over you with his car.”
Fred remains stationary. He has retracted all of his appendages and the horny scutes of his shell blend easily into the rock face.
I prod him with the toe of my boot. The ingrate should be thankful I don’t give him a good solid kick. Instead, I do the right thing and scoop him back up in his heavy blanket. Soon enough, he’s again settled on the passenger seat, no worse for wear, his dreams of freedom a distant memory. I flip the air-conditioner on from habit, then shut it off.
“Don’t say you didn’t have your chance,” I say, borrowing his cloth to wipe the perspiration from my neck. “Frankly, I’m disappointed in you.”
“I have no regrets,” replies Fred, now channeling Jimmy Stewart. “All my life I thought I wanted to be free. And then freedom was mine for the asking, and I didn’t want it any longer. What do I want with liberty when a beautiful massage therapist is willing to feed me earthworms?”
“When you put it that way...,” I agree.
I hear Maddie before I see her. She opens the passenger door, her summer dress caked in dirt. “You two boys getting along?”
“We’re discussing freedom,” I answer. “He’s a chatty tortoise, once you coax him out of his shell.”
“He’s also going to be a hungry tortoise,” says Maddie. “I couldn’t find anything.” She returns my mug to the cup holder. It contains a garden snail resting on a bed of clipped grass.
“We’re going to have to take him back,” Maddie continues. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” She polishes the top of the turtle’s shell. “Even if we ran off to Mexico, he’d get hurt somehow. I just know it. He’d get sick from the local water and we wouldn’t be able to find a veterinarian. Or we’d leave him in a motel room one afternoon and the maid would prop the door open by mistake. As much as I want to run away with him, I know it would be selfish.” Maddie tickles the belly of Fred’s plastron, and he emits a low-pitched gurgle that sounds almost like laughter. “Besides, I completely forgot the special pills for his kidneys.”
I make a U-turn on the rocks and shift the car into overdrive. We muscle our way up the steep incline toward the main road. While we jounce over stray roots, I worry about the transmission and the tires. Meanwhile, Maddie apologizes to Fred for her shortcomings as a “tortoise-mother.”
“He almost escaped,” I say, “while you were gone.”
“I don’t want to know,” says Maddie. “I’m just glad he didn’t.”
“Think he could have survived out here on his own?”
“Not in a million years. He’d be breakfast for some lucky hawk or owl before tomorrow morning.” Maggie uses the cloth to remove sand from the folds of Fred’s neck. “Anyhow, he’s a desert box turtle. If the humidity here didn’t kill him, the winter would.”
“I would have got you a new one,” I say.
“No you wouldn’t,” answers Maddie, her voice cold and sharp. “I wouldn’t have spoken to you ever again.”
I can tell that she is dead serious, that our relationship has been saved by the intransigence of a tortoise. Fred now appears to be napping, his wrinkled eyelids clamped shut over his bulging eyes. I too am exhausted: far too tired to process the afternoon’s escapade. We drive the remainder of the twenty-minute journey to Yonkers in silence. I contemplate telling Maddie about Dr. Whipple, but I will do that later, once I am more awake and have removed the garden snail from my coffee mug. I now sense that we’ll have plenty of time.
This story comes from Jacob M. Appel's collection entitled Einstein's Beach House. It has also appeared on paper in the Wisconsin Review. For more information on Mr Appel's publications, go to www.jacobmappel.com