The custody meeting held for my husband’s grandma’s river turtle was fairly well attended, considering it was held on a screened-in porch on a hot day and considering that everyone invited wished the turtle would die and shuffle off to hell.
We held the meeting on the porch so that we could look at Solomon as we considered his future. He had lived in a plastic swimming pool for fifty-two years, but the pool was switched out every few years and shifted around the yard every few weeks, so Solomon’s round, domesticated life wasn’t without novelty and adjustment periods.
Ten years before Nate’s Grammy Louise died, she wrote her own obituary, stuffed it in an envelope, and taped it to the refrigerator with the words LET ME TELL IT written on the outside. The obit, now public, devoted a full paragraph to her long-term river turtle Solomon, three lines to her kids and grandkids, and nine words to her sister: “also survived by Calista, who never could keep up.”
Nate’s uncle Gregory asked everyone at the meeting to please sit and settle, then gave a short speech about how it takes a special woman to love and care for a hairless creature over the course of ten presidential administrations. We all agreed—Louise really was a gentle soul and a good example, even if she never outgrew the need to goad her sister—but we didn’t agree too loudly for fear that our enthusiasm would be misconstrued as a desire to take Solomon home with us.
When Gregory opened up the meeting to comments, our niece said that she didn’t even know why she was in the running because she lived in a studio apartment without a balcony. Calista said that at her age she lacked the upper-body strength to care for a turtle of that size, even though we all knew that she went bowling every Tuesday night and even owned her own ball, The Big Marble. Our sister-in-law brought up the fact that Solomon once snapped at her elderly dog, but Gregory told her that Solomon was a big flirt and that she should know that by now.
My strategy for avoiding turtle responsibility was to keep quiet and give a lot of eye contact to the people making excuses, let them feel heard and seen so they’d appreciate me so much that they’d never want to send me away with a kiddie pool strapped to the top of my car.
My personal relationship with Solomon was one of mutual disgust. One Fourth of July I saw him eat a burnt marshmallow off a stick right after I’d read about how marshmallows contained tendons and ligaments. Watching boiled life-strings roll around inside his dry, pointed beak made me gag. Since then I can’t see Solomon as anything other than a death vacuum. And for his side, Sol won’t swim over to me when I visit, even when it’s my turn to give him worms and shredded romaine. I don’t think he likes the smell of my lilac grapefruit hand lotion, which is why I try never to run out.
Actually, Solomon never really liked anyone other than Louise. He adored that woman. He used to let her put her eyeglasses on his back and then he’d swim a lap like that, with his shell looking like a bookish lily pad. It was a pointless trick, meaning it was a big hit with anyone who saw it performed.
On the porch, Nate stood up and put his arms out in a take-charge gesture and that’s when I started to worry that we’d be sent home with the damn turtle. He and I should have gotten on the same page about laying low.
But no, arms up, he said, listen, let’s be honest. No one wants the turtle and we should put him back in the river.
I wanted to throw something to make him stop—my shoe, my phone, my niece. In the footnotes of her obituary, Grammy Louise made it very clear that Solomon was not to be released into the wild. She felt that his animal instincts had probably expired back in the eighties.
Nate’s sister, ignoring her brother’s bold suggestion, said that Sol’s new owner should be the person who looks most like Louise since she was the only human he had any affection for, and that they could put it to a vote, a Louise-likeness vote.
And then everyone but me voted for Nate as a punishment for his misstep, even though Nate and his siblings are technically step-grandchildren and any resemblance they had to Louise was pure coincidence.
Nate offered a weak rebuttal, talked about how Gregory, as a boy, was the one who brought the turtle home from the river, how that right there constituted ownership. But I was already deciding to put the kiddie pool in the backyard instead of the side yard. I wouldn’t be able to swallow my breakfast for fear I might catch a glimpse of Solomon’s claw feet moving him forward even though he had nowhere to go.
Our first week with the turtle was no honeymoon. Sol was in mourning—he wouldn’t eat or react to loud sounds. I moved him to the shade and told him that time heals all wounds, but I worried he was hell bent on going belly up.
To support him on his grief journey, I set up a lawn chair beside his pool and tried to be a reassuring presence. I told him stories from my childhood—hay bales, creek water, trail rides—and more recent stories about childbirth and factory jobs and night school. The longer I talked the closer he came to my side of the pool. Then he pushed himself up on his back legs and I swear he gave me a look that said look, I hear you, but that’s enough.
I said, you’re right, I’ll follow your lead. And that’s how I spent an entire day living according to the rhythms of a bereaved turtle. When he ate, I ate. When he swam, I walked laps. When he sat still with a soft unfocused gaze I did the same. Mostly we stared at nothing and let our losses accumulate. He’d lost his caregiver, his companion, and the yard he’d always known and I’d lost my daddy, my grandparents, my best cousin, a high school friend, the momentum toward greatness I once possessed, the affectionate closeness I felt when my children were small, and also the control over whether or not I owned a turtle. By dark, I wasn’t sure if Solomon had taught me to accept reality or to wallow in it, but I knew that day had felt more bearable than most.
Soon after that I took Solomon to the river, right upstream from where he was found. I didn’t release him, in fact I tied him to me, a rope around my wrist and his middle so that he’d be right there to show me how to use an hour and I’d be right there to demonstrate reliability and permanence and how to take up more space when more space is what you’ve finally been given.
Janelle Bassett’s writing appears in The Rumpus, New Delta Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The Offing, Jellyfish Review, No Contact, and Slice Magazine. She lives in St. Louis and is an Assistant Fiction Editor for Split Lip Magazine.