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The Bad Turtles

An inventory of New Years.

9, 10, 11. Bedtime came and went, and the world remained. I drifted into a nap, but my mother shook me awake, and resolved to please her, I stayed up.

In this land after sleep, I discovered night television, the phosphorescent heart of darkness, with Dick Clark for my Kurtz. News anchors, loud rock music, New York City in hats, drunk and shouting, an annual Dionysian revel before the glass-ball idol. Following the lead of the others I cheered as the ball went down, and clinked my cup of eggnog with my mother's and grandfather's, their own spiced and smelling odd.

I was the glue of the moment, something I intuited but did not fathom. My grandfather's wife was gone, my father lost to whatever his quest turned out to be. Two lonely people, my mother and her father, and then me. A family tree with all its branches pruned by death and abandonment, and I, by my youth and relative good spirits, gave the events cheer and hope they might otherwise have lacked.

Second grade resolutions:

  1. No fighting or yeling.
  2. Good at chores.
  3. Walk Donny every day. MY RESPONSIBILITY.
  4. Homework right after school.
  5. No more bad turtles.
  6. Lift the seat!!!!!!

All inscribed in red pen on yellow construction paper, the last one written for me by my mother. There is no explanation for number 5. I've hacked through my memory, but I never owned a turtle, was not much interested in them. So what were the bad turtles? What did they do? Why was I intent on stopping them?

12-18. New Years best forgotten. I was at the charity-case boarding school for most of each year. I was coming into the awareness that I have no distinct talents, that I am an unsinging, unpainting, half-educated, unmusical fellow. A great deal of lazy, self-congratulatory reading. The anticlimactic loss of virginity, a stumble into a snowdrift, like visiting England: more interesting to talk about than do. More important was the death of Donny, the chocolate lab, my good, barking friend, succumbed to a disease of the dog-liver, and my mother's phone call that night in August when I was 17, telling me the vet had put him down. I toasted Donny on that New Year's eve, an auld aquaintance still sorely missed, and much loved. Somewhere still he rolls in something dead, yelping with glee.

My friends increasingly had little knives and bad habits, but I remained fairly innocent of all but the occasional cigarette, and my New Years were correspondingly simple, and still spent with family. Yet I was filling up now with violence and cold logic, cynical, becoming a vandal. For my grandfather I made an effort, hid my random anger so as not to disappoint him; to my mother I was indifferent and cruel, shrugging off her needs. And this: on the New Years of my 18th year I was allowed to drink champagne with the family.

By now I have given up resolutions.

19. No longer at home, nor in high school, I urinated into a hamper, and leaning back, fell down a set of stairs. From there I knocked over a crib, upsetting the sleeping one year old within, and was ejected from the house by my girlfriend, the child's mother. Pulling myself from the ice, I walked to a friend's house and insisted he let me in, began to cry, and fell asleep on his couch. When I woke up, I discovered a sprained ankle at the end of my bruised leg.

20. Tony has just a line, and he unloads his gun, puts the barrell to my head, and pulls the trigger. Bang, he says.

21-30. Nothing to remark. Alcohol, tears. Escaping serious problems, I moved to New York City, then away, then back to New York once more.

31. “Look,” I said, “there it is.” I am back in Pennsylvania. I cannot believe how fragile he is, blue under the skin.

“2004,” he said. “Jesus would you look at that.”

My mother gave him the whisky, just a sip in the cup, without the eggnog. Al he can handle. Cyndi Lauper begins to sing at Times Square.

I said, “I nearly had the job of being her assistant, drive her places.”

My grandfather looked over, waiting.

“You take her phone calls, make sure that everything is comfortable, run her errands.”

“Bad pay, I bet,” said my mother.

“I didn't want to apply. Not for me. They said she can be a little tough to deal with.”

“All of them are hard to deal with,” said my grandfather.

“I always liked that song,” said my mother, then singing: “time after time.” I listened, a vestige of adolescent embarrassment at her tunelessness and emotional immediacy. “Ray, how does it go?”

“Can't remember that one,” I said.

“Midnight, 2004,” said my grandfather, amazed not only at the lateness of the year, but also that he was still awake. He raised from the great soft chair, a langorous process from which my mother and I averted our eyes. “Happy New Year,” he said, embracing each of us, holding us longer than he normally would, and then: “it's past the bedtime of old men.” He walked into the toilet, and a moment later, to the bedroom that my mother had established the first floor, to save him from the stairs.

Fireworks in Brooklyn, 12:01AM, January 1, 2004. Photo by Paul Ford.


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