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Maddie climbs from the Buick and sets the cloth-encased tortoise down on the passenger seat. Nothing of the armor-plated creature is visible outside his damask shroud — not so much as one crusty leg. The contraband might easily pass as a well-wrapped box of cigars, or a hunk of farmer cheese, or a stack of paperback books. In short, something entirely innocuous. A year of criminal procedure has assured me that the police cannot inspect my bundle without probable cause. As I take solace in this technicality, the cloth begins to shuffle along the vinyl.
“You can take care of him for a few minutes, can’t you?” asks Maddie. “Just keep the air-conditioner off. Hug him if he seems anxious.”
“What about food for us?” I ask.
“I’m too stressed to eat,” says Maddie. “When Fred is finished with the earthworms, you can have the leftovers.”
“Thanks,” I answer. “Let me guess. They’re rich in protein.”
Maddie reaches into her handbag and fishes out a granola bar. She’s smiling now, her makeup-stained face radiating beauty and vulnerability.
“Here,” she says. “But save half for dinner.”
My girlfriend scrambles over the rocks and disappears into a stand of hickories.
I remove the blanket from Fred’s back; he responds by retracting his head.
“Are you anxious?” I ask. “Would you like a hug?”
The tortoise pokes his head out tentatively. “Do you know what I’d like, buddy?” he answers. “I’d like my liberty.”
Fred speaks with an aristocratic, high-pitched British accent — he sounds like Winston Churchill orating through helium — and I’m relieved that my talents are still intact. I’ve been watching myself in the rearview mirror during Fred’s reply, and only a trained professional could have detected the muscles moving inside my throat. If I ever return to the stage, a box tortoise might prove an excellent foil for Dr. Whipple. I can already envision the wooden surgeon trying to slice open the reptile’s carapace with a plastic scalpel.
“How’d you like to be a star, Freddy, my boy?” I ask. “A household name, Frederico. You could be to turtles what Jiminy is to crickets.”
“I don’t want no fame, mister,” pleads Fred — now sounding like a Brooklyn cabby. “I want my freedom.”
“Freedom?” I echo — for the benefit of an imaginary audience. “Hear that, folks? He wants his freedom.”
The more I think about freeing Fred, however, the less crazy the idea seems. At some point, after all, the police are going to come searching for the missing animal. If Maddie and I are not going to run off to Latin America — and with my luck, we wouldn’t make it as far as Newark — then we’re going to have to leave him somewhere. So why not Flamingo Beach? He’ll have fresh air, breathtaking views of Manhattan, and an infinite supply of earthworms. What more could an animal with a brain the size of an almond possibly desire? And what better way to destroy the evidence of our crime? I recognize that Maddie will be dismayed, at first, but I’m optimistic that she’ll recover rapidly — especially once I buy her a replacement.
Of course, I won’t actually tell Maddie that I liberated Fred. I’ll just report that he escaped: one minute, the fellow was sunning himself placidly on the hood of the Buick — and an instant later he vaulted onto a boulder and vanished into the marsh. I will trample down the closest bulrushes as evidence of my efforts to recover him.