The Ancestry of Turtles

by Colby Vargas

Just an hour ago Roy and I saw a turtle in the desperate weeds where the off-ramp leaves the highway. It was plump, like an alligator stuffed in a turtle costume one size too small, the snapping kind you might see basking on a log if you ever floated down the Missouri. It hugged the ground, perfectly still except for the occasional swish of its tail.

Look at that thing, Roy said, it's goddamn beautiful. He reached across me and pointed, put the bony knob of his wrist in front of my face so I had to look. He was whispering like we were in church, or in front of the most expensive painting in a museum.

Roy and I met last spring in Advanced Photography at the Community College. We don't use words like boyfriend or girlfriend, but after work I end up in his Pontiac Sunbird with its soundtrack of scrapes, ticks, and clicks; an hour will go by before either of us speaks. We are just driving places.

Roy must have taken his foot off the gas to stare at the turtle, because behind us a horn blared, the driver really leaning on it. Roy's shoulder shuddered, and I knew this movement was the urge to flip the guy off, or to pull over and see how far this asshole wanted to go. Roy is plenty big, fluid and loose-limbed even though there's a paunch developing just above his belt. He has mentioned a couple of fights from high school, both times the other guy pushing him too far.

It was our exit anyway. Roy gunned the Sunbird up the off-ramp and in a minute I couldn't see the turtle or even the grass at the side of the highway.

One of us, I honestly can't remember who, said the turtle was done for, totally screwed, and the other agreed. It was quiet for awhile, which I took to mean there was nothing more to say.

It's all the fucking construction, was what Roy eventually said that broke the silence. They're building a Best Buy or something else that's going to really, truly benefit society. I'll bet that turtle's parents and grandparents and a shitload of turtles lived there before all this. One hand still on the steering wheel, he shrugged his shoulders expansively to indicate the "all this".

Roy kept talking about the ancestry of turtles. He has a nice vocabulary for finishing one year of college and being chronically under-employed, so it was easy to imagine the side of the highway the way he described it, verdant and swampy and crawling with Mesozoic versions of the creature we had seen. They would be swinging their monstrous reptile heads back and forth on their wrinkled old man necks, scanning for unsuspecting mammals to snatch up in their viselike jaws.

All you needed to take Advanced Photography was a camera with a zoom lens. The professor taught us names for every part of the camera, and let us develop one print in the dark room. We had to conserve the fluids, he explained, because they weren't being replaced anymore, everything was going digital, and his voice somehow caught and cracked on a simple word like digital. The professor critiqued one photo only, our best work, for the Final. I submitted a black-and-white of the decaying garden shed in my parents' backyard and received an A. "Forlorn. Nostalgic!" the instructor wrote on the back of the print, and "I hope you'll find somewhere to pursue your art." Roy took a picture of a homeless man who earned $10 a day wearing a Dunkin' Donuts costume on the side of the road. Pull the costume half off, Roy had instructed him, so I can see your face but still know that you are essentially a donut. The professor had written and circled the letter B on the back of Roy's photo.

It's easy to see Roy has been thinking about the turtle ever since we left the highway. He flexes his jaw so that the muscles bump out wide and curls his lips tight around his teeth, which is him shuffling words around in his head until they are in the right order. Something important to be said. Some day he'll say that he wants to move to Europe, or that he's going to vote Democrat, or that he thinks the two of us are done.

What were you going to do for it, I ask. Those snappers bite hard. And they get big. Not like you can just drop it in a fish tank and water it.

Roy takes the next two rights and we're pointed back at the highway. He grinds the clutch searching for the right gear. He smiles easy and wide, his mouth and cheeks and chin taking on crazy curves. This was the face he'd used to chat me up that first day after class. Are you asking me out, I had wanted to know. Just saying we can stay together some more, he had said, flashing that smile. We don't have to retreat to our corners just because school is over. Maybe we can take some pictures for class.

He tells me again how they had these snapping turtles at the crick in his backyard growing up.

The crick was where he swatted rocks with a huge stick, developed the home run stroke that kept him on the baseball team all the way to varsity. He'd found the skeleton of a dog with a rabies tag from the year 1954 buried on one side of this crick.

Dad let me keep the turtles from the crick, he says. Not inside—Mom wouldn't have stood for that—but we dug a hole and lined it with rocks, and dropped in vegetables and table scraps. Turtles would go for the food, and then they couldn't get out of the pit. They couldn't get any purchase on the smooth rocks.

Every couple of weeks we pick up Roy's father from Assisted Living and take him to the Olive Garden restaurant two strip malls over. He is small and his hair, clothes, and skin are variations of gray and brown. Rocks and dirt. He slides into the passenger seat of the Sunbird deftly, notices me in the back seat. He smiles and reveals a mouthful of yellow teeth, a couple going black at the gum line. He shakes my hand in his bony pipefitter's grip. Well hello, young lady, he says every single time. I see we're dining in fine company tonight. Happy to make your acquaintance. Roy, exactly what is your lovely companion's name?

Roy's father barely fills the chair at the restaurant. We pass him bowls of salad and parmesan cheese that he can't quite reach. Roy asks him a couple of times if he remembers the crick behind their house, and the turtles. How they built that hole for them. Does he remember that, how great the yard and the crick were? Where was that house, in case Roy wants to take my by there some time? Had Roy's mother been there?

Once, waiting for the Photography teacher to show up, I asked Roy about his family. He pulled a Polaroid from his wallet. He is four or five in the picture, and his parents hunch behind him to fit in the frame. The young square-jawed father in the Polaroid is hard to connect with the tiny man we take out to dinner, but he is of the same palette, stone and mud. Roy's mother is thin, a fashionable dress of the era pulled tight around a vanishing waist. She has porcelain skin, too-red lipstick and a brittle perfect posture. Each parent has one arm resting protectively on Young Roy, as if the camera might explode in their faces. The lights of a Christmas tree burn tiny yellow holes in the background of the picture. There has been a delay in the posing and taking of the picture, and their three smiles are thin, waning.

Roy held the Polaroid at the edges so I could get a good look. He told me he was an only child, that his mother had left a long time ago, and that otherwise the picture pretty much captured it.

Roy's father takes two more full bites of his spaghetti before he answers about the crick. He can't remember them living anywhere by water, or even having a backyard. He never wanted to mow no lawns, he says in his clicking smoker's voice. He cackles at this triumph over lawn care, and begins a slow patient assault on the last breadstick. We always stay long enough for a refill on the breadsticks.

Then we'd just give the turtle a long stick, Roy continues. Put it in front of them, they snap onto it, you pull them out, and voila! Freedom! He turns to his father, who won't look up from his plate, and raises his voice, arguably too loud for a restaurant, and this is where I realize that I am the most important person at the table. I am the notary public of their family history. Roy's father will never recall the turtles.

Why it's just like staying at the Grand Amphibian Hotel, Roy remembers his father saying. Square meal and all, that turtle is better off than before he came to us.

It's weird how he doesn't remember the turtles, Roy says after we drop off his father. They drove Mom crazy. Not like I'm-going-to-up-and-leave-you-both crazy, but like boys will be boys, you know?

By the time we make it back to the highway, Roy is humming triumphantly, the sort of tune you'd hear as the credits roll in a sports movie, and tapping the steering wheel in time. He pops out of his door before the car stops moving. It's easy to get caught up in his urgency.

We comb the patchy grass with our feet. Just make sure you're behind him, Roy reminds me, anticipating my fear. That is what I do for the two of us; I worry and I imagine the worst possible outcomes.

The weedy triangle by the highway has been collecting plastic and Styrofoam flotsam a long time. But no turtle. We're like two street people shuffling for cigarette butts. I try not to look up but I can hear the cars slow down in curiosity and disgust. No one stops, but I can feel their confused stares careening off their rear view mirrors.

Roy drags the shard of a broken broomstick at his side as we search.

For the turtle to snap onto, he explains. He's going to use the stick to drag the turtle away from the highway. It'll be better off.

It is late summer. The sun is hovering at the edge of things, about to drop out of existence. The world is graying out.

We end up on the shoulder of the highway. Most cars have their headlights on, and those that don't remember to flip them on right when they see us; the fluorescence explodes around us and all I see is Roy's colorless silhouette. We put our forearms over our eyes and keep looking for the snapping turtle. We end up walking maybe a half mile each way. I'm not sure what we're looking for, that big mean-looking thing flipped over on its back, or maybe bits of shattered carapace. There's only smooth concrete median in the middle—nowhere a turtle could hide or climb.

At least he's not all over the road, I joke, and immediately wish I hadn't.

Fuck it all, Roy says, three syllables jammed into one word, and he whips the broomstick so that it spins away, caroms off the underpass, and settles in the middle lane, turning slowly. His forearm ripples, maybe from the effort of throwing the broomstick, and I know that when Roy is gone from me, this is how I will remember him. He keeps his head down the whole time, I assume still looking for the turtle.

BIO: Colby Vargas is a teacher, husband, and parent in the Chicago suburbs who writes in the small cracks of time between these things. His work has appeared sporadically over the last few years in places like Annalemma Magazine and Midwest Literary Magazine. He won a few contests a long time ago.