I never thought I’d end up with a woman because of a snapping turtle. Pretty random, huh? Not the kind of story you’d read in Cosmo, if they still publish those kinds of stories.
I’m driving down Route 175 from Skaneateles toward Marcellus when I spot this big rock in the other lane. Or maybe it’s a log– something in the road that shouldn’t be there. Either side of the road is marshy, below road level, so it’s not like this rock rolled downhill, maybe some kids put it in the road as a prank or it fell off a truck, doesn’t matter. It’s there.
I have no idea why, but I take my foot off the gas to slow down. Today’s going to be the day I do the good deed, roll the rock or log or whatever off the road so someone’s Grandma doesn’t smack it and end up in the swamp. The shoulder’s pretty wide, so I signal and pull over. I take another look at the rock and it’s moving. Alligator snapper, fuck, I’m going to have to kill it.
Normally, I believe in the idea of karma, cosmic balance appeals to me. In traffic, I’ll let a little old lady pull out of the bank driveway ahead of me to make up for the time when I ran a long yellow. But with snapping turtles, no such détente exists. I give them no quarter and seek to rid the world of those evil fuckers. And that’s just what they are- evil.
I have a general plan for snappers I meet up with on the road. Kill them. The best option is to just run them over, to feel the thud and the satisfying smash of the shell as my tire squashes the life from it. You remember those old movies from science class? The ones with the sea otter floating happily on its back in the kelp bed as it smashes the clamshell on its chest with a nice heavy rock? Well that’s me. The only problem with that plan is oncoming traffic.
It was a gray rainy day and I was driving to my parents’ house, taking the back way, cutting across some country roads. I liked to drive this way because as a kid this was the schoolbus route and I enjoy dabbling in a bit of nostalgia from time to time. Around a bend, between two of my friends’ houses, I encountered a snapping turtle off to my left. Without thinking, I sped up and jerked the steering wheel and hit the turtle with my front tire. A satisfying liquid thud and I look up in my rearview to see it struggling to escape a halfsmashed shell. Instantly, I regret my momentary anger, but I have no time for guilt because I’m driving onto the soft shoulder. Cavalierly, I don’t brake, but just jerk the wheel to the right and into the path of a 12-ton farm truck. For whatever reason I gun it instead of trying to stop and just barely swerve back into my lane and speed to my parents’ house.
Were I a religious man, I would have recognized the Hand of God at play and thereby arrested my turtle killing spree, but I am not and I did not. Truth is, I’ve been out for turtleblood since I was 11.
My father is driving, our big old car is hot and dusty. I am uncomfortable in my Little League uniform, wiggling around on the big black bench seat, watching the cornfields and wooded hills pass by. We’re late according to the clock on the dashboard, we’re always late because Dad is always talking, letting time slip. We rush up the highway and turn onto a road I don’t recognize. I look up at the signpost. Shortcut Rd. I hope so.
We crest a hill and head down toward a swampy creek. All the creeks around us are swampy, running along the bottoms of drumlins, flooding in the spring and muddy all summer. I hate these creeks, no trout live in them, no rapids or cascades over stones. They’re muck and clay, soft and gross, no fun to play in.
“Look at that turtle.” My father says pointing out the windshield, breaking my intense pregame concentration. I look ahead and see a muddy clump dragging itself into the road. I can’t tell exactly how big it is from here, but it’s big, bigger than the dimestore turtles I used to have in my terrarium. My little guys were greenish black, yellow underneath with some red. As we roll downhill toward this monster, I see that it is nothing like those turtles, probably more like the crocodiles at the zoo. “I know a guy makes turtle soup,” Dad says, “Let’s get him.”
Dad pulls over and I sit still, my fidgeting gone. I’ve been fishing before, but never hunting or trapping. This adventure is definitely out of my league. I look over to see how Dad is going to catch him. He looks back at me, expectantly. “What are you waiting for? Go grab him.” Though he cracks a smile, I feel no mirth. Get him? Get him? I turn my head to peer out the windshield.
I possessed no synonyms for this turtle-unlike-any-turtle-I-know except monster. And generically, monster did not seem to provide the correct degree of semantic specificity to apply here. I mean, the sun is shining, it’s a hot July day, a slight breeze is rustling through the cattails- none of the atmosphere of a Saturday afternoon monster movie. “You want to be late for the game?”
I open the car door and cross in front of it, the coarse pavement rasping against my cleats. The turtle is slow, no duh, and is only a couple feet onto the road. But I can now see its real size, homeplate or better, and I discern the issue at hand, his beak. I take a tentative step toward the creature and it rears its head, dragonlike, and all I see is a tremendous hissing mouth.
I know Dad is watching me, and it’s important to be a man here, not a little boy, but no way am I going to get around that mouth to grab its shell. And then there’s the matter of the claws. More hissing war machine than coldblooded reptile, this veritable Gorgon threatens to ruin my life, not just tonight’s game. “Here,” Dad says behind me. I turn toward him just as he lobs something at me from the car. My baseball mitt. “Use this.” Good idea, I think, as I slide it onto my hand. I’ll come around from behind and scoop him up, somehow, I think, eyeing those hindclaws.
My father has anticipated my mistake, as fathers do, and as I step behind and start to bend down, he yells “No, knucklehead. Let him bite the glove.” I’m pretty sure my father grew up in the same snapping-turtleless city I did, so I’m not sure how he knows the correct method of catching one. My hesitation must seem to be distrust, because he launches into an angry “Just dangle the glove in front of his snout and he’ll bite it. Snappers lock their jaws and won’t let go.” Actual real-life distrust fills me, freezes my feet. Without knowing why, I slide my left hand out of the glove and clutch it in my right, web down. The turtle snaps at it, misjudging the distance, but I don’t stop the advance. On the second snap, it clamps down fiercely on the web and I jerk my hand back. In my haste I let go of the glove, but the turtle, true to my father’s words, does not. Fearful that I’ll lose my chance at this treasure, I grab at the palm of my glove. The snout, less than a foot away, does not move. As I pull the glove up toward my waist, I realize that the turtle is bigger and heavier than I had imagined. “Both hands, Michael, both hands.”
I have it, this monstrous turtle, gray mudsmeared stench arm’s-length from my bright blue uniform. The suspended deadweight is causing my arms to quiver, but I will not drop it. Dad opens the car door. I take a step thinking I’ll toss it onto the backseat floor, but he says “In the trunk.” Keys out, the lid rises as I round the fender and heave the beast into the trunk. It never looses the glove, thankfully, and I smile when Dad slams the trunk. I hop back into the car and in five minutes we’re at the ballfield.
I am excited about the game, my teammates have friends from school on the opposing team and they’ve been trashtalking all week. Dad pulls the car in, parks and as he climbs out someone calls to him from across the lot. I open my door, hop out and get ready to go down the hill when I realize I’ve forgotten my glove. I’m reaching into the frontseat when I realize with a shock of dread that the glove is still in the trunk, still in the dragon’s mouth probably. The trunk lid is closed, so I call out “Dad, I need my glove,” hoping he’d walk over and smoothly retrieve my glove for me. I can see my teammates ending their warmup, so to facilitate this course of action, I position myself slightly downhill from the car, ready to sprint to our dugout. Dad, talking to some buddy several cars away doesn’t move, he just reaches down into his pocket for the keys and tosses them in my general direction. I catch them and step hesitantly toward the rear of the car.
I am not afraid, I will put the rounded key into the keyhole, wiggle it in the special way it requires, then turn it slowly to release the mechanism. I picture the turtle, huddled tightly in its shell, backed up past the spare tire, my glove within easy reach. No such luck. As I open the lid, the turtle is right in front of me, and even as its neck retracts, it holds desperately onto my glove. But I know the trick with snapping turtles, so I look for a stick or something at my feet to tickle his beak with, to entice him into dropping my glove and snappig at this new threat.
I spot a twig, much smaller than I would have liked, but I the announcer comes onto the P.A. “Welcome to…” This twig will have to do. No longer than a standard-issue Number Two Pencil, the twig is woefully inadequate to the task and as I tickle with my left hand, I go to reach with my right, and before I have a chance to grab the glove, I see the turtle’s head whip toward my hand supernaturally fast. I pull my hand back– too late, I will come to realize when I see the dark slash of blood across my uniform.
There isn’t much traffic on 175, so I’m able to walk right up on the turtle. I dangle the towel just out of snapping reach to tease him a bit. I keep a small dishrag in the trunk for just this occasion. It’s taken me a while to learn this, but a snapper has the striking dexterity of a rattlesnake. Which is weird because these big old lunkers have fat hanging out their shells and can’t move for shit. The best way to catch a snapper on dry ground is to scoop it up with a snowshovel. I used to carry one with me for a while but when I bought a smaller car, I ditched it.
Experience has also taught me that relying on the “he’ll lock his jaws and not let go” idea that I should grab onto his tail and hold him as far away from my body as possible. I use the towel to keep the head occupied. This one clamps right down on the towel and I lift him from the tail. A herpiphile will warn you against this as it can break the tail and cause spinal damage, but that’s mere bonus to me. Just over a foot long, he’s easily 30 pounds. There’s an old wives’ tale that you can count the rings on the carapace and tell how old it is, like with a tree, but I don’t care. Any amount of time on Earth is too long for this sinister being.
Actually, this one’s an old female, only females get this big. The true way to know is to find an egg tube, but that’s far too intimate for me. I’m more happy to take out a female so it can’t spawn anymore evil, but I hear the males are better in soup. Course, free turtle is free turtle. Gotta call Dad.
I should know better than to daydream about turtle soup, which I’ve never even had, because with these muddemons a moment of lagging attention is a lost digit. Searing pain across my forearm reminds me just how vicious those claws are. Instinct causes me to drop the turtle. It falls awkwardly on its side, fracturing the plastron from forelegs to back. The gouge on my arm is painful but not deep enough for stitches. I’m done with this turtle. I pick it up above both rear legs and as I lift it from the ground I hear a car slow down. Momentarily, I catch the eye of the driver, a beautiful blonde in a nice red Lexus, who averts her gaze and speeds away. I toss the turtle into the trunk and slam it. It’s muggy, I’m sweating and bleeding, but at least I’ve removed one more beast from this Earth. I lean against my car, catching my breath.
“Hey Dad, got a question. I just snagged a big turtle, you still know that guy? Yeah…”
Across the road from me, close to the turtle’s original position, a red car slows down and pulls over. It’s the Lexus. I look at my hands, slimy and covered with two kinds of blood and wish I had not thrown the dishrag into the trunk with the turtle. The woman peers tentatively over at me, so I give a halfhearted smile. Apparently this is enough because she opens the door and unfulrs herself onto the shoulder. This can go one of two ways. I wait until she’s crossed the road.
“Thanks, Dad. Love you too.” Dad’s already hung up but I can’t resist adding the last part for Ms. Lexus. I flash her a sheepish grin when we make eye contact.
“I saw you with the turtle. You got it?” She looks over the guardrail into the marsh.
“Oh, that’s so nice…” She looks back at me and stops when she sees the blood. I look down at my arm, turning my wrist outward. My shirt is absolutely ruined, torn from elbow to wrist and blackened with mud, blood and who knows what else. “Oh, you’re bleeding! Let me take a look.” Before I can protest, she’s busy ministering to my wound, which is indeed quite messy. She retrieves a bottle of water from her car and some paper towels. I am cleaned up, sort of, in no time.
“Fantastic job,” I say, turning on the charm.
“I was a nurse in a former existence,” she replies, brushing her hair from her face. I want to kiss her, but something tells me there will be trouble.
“I run my own business. But I haven’t lost my touch.” She pauses to shift gears. “What makes a man stop to save a turtle?” Her face is earnest, her posture innocent, guileless. I feel almost guilty. Huh? No, I can’t have feelings for a stupid turtle.
“Here’s the thing. If I don’t stop, some jerk’s going to come barreling around the curve and wham!” I slap my hands together for effect. It works. And I’m being honest
“Oh…” She’s appropriately horrified. She’s an animal lover. She equates that turtle and the kitten her girlfriend gave her. We’ve reached an awkward impasse. It’s clear she’d like to nurture me some more, but the side of the road next to a swamp is not the place for an initial romantic encounter. I’ve got to steer the future here.
“My name’s Michael,” I offer my hand.
“Michelle.” Nurse’s hands. Wonderful. “Michael, ah, I have an appointment, but…” You know how it goes from there. For the next three months, I don’t kill a single snapper, if only because I don’t come across any. Michelle and I have a wonderful relationship, she’s everything I could ever want in a woman. But karma is a nasty bitch.
My brother Jim calls me.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m over at Best Buy looking at tvs.”
“I’m heading over to Rosie’s for lunch, you in? You can bring Michelle if she brings a friend.” Daydrinking at Rosie’s Pub is a favorite pasttime of a select group of regular guys. Jim will stop in for lunch and if I’m out and about, sometimes I’ll join him.
“She’s off today, running errands. Let me call her and I’ll meet you there.”
“I’ll be there in like 20.” I call Michelle.
The bar is different than a typical sportsbar, more than a typical neighborhood pub. It has its own cornerbar charm. I roll in and there’s Mike, Dave, Mark Hastings, Phil and Jim. Leighanne is at the bar. Michelle’s not here yet. I order a Guinness.
“Hey, Phil was telling us about this job he did over in Minoa the other day.” “Yeah? What happened?”
“I’ve got the materials all set up in the garage, we’re working around back of the house, it’s drizzling a little, so the lady tells us to use the garage to get to the back, stay out of the mud and all that…”
“So we’re back there pounding away, job’s going great and all of a sudden I hear this scream. The lady is out by her patio screaming her head off. I think she’s being raped or something so I rush around the bushes and she’s there pointing across her yard. She’s back up to a golf course and I guess they have a pond right there because this big mother turtle is walking across her yard.” He pauses to sip his Pabst.
“Of course. But it’s like 50 feet away headed in the opposite direction.”
“That’s weird, so why’s she screaming?”
“Turns out, she’s a cancer survivor and the day she tested positive a turtle had walked right across her patio, so this fucker just freaks her the fuck out.”
“Fuck. Now that’s crazy.”
“Yeah it is.” He sips his Pabst again.
“So what’d you do?”
“I told the lady to go inside and I’d take care of it. So I watch her walk inside, close the blinds and I go back to work. The turtle wandered away.” We laugh.
Hasting jumps in. “Ya know, down South they’ve got these turtlers, people who fish for ‘em, lines and bait and all.”
“Nobody fucking cares about what hillbillies do in their spare time,” Jim says, backhanding Mark’s shoulder. Classic daydrinking repartee. “I’ve got a snapping turtle story for ya,” he continues. “We’re on the way over to pick up Pete for the football game one Saturday morning and we’re all piled in Chad’s pickup. All of a sudden, we roll up on this huge snapper and Chad wants to crush the fucker but Billy goes ‘Let’s get him for Dad’s friend.’” I see Michelle walk in and look for us.
“Shh, Missy’s here.” I whisper to Jim, but he ignores me. I wave Michelle over.
“I think Billy was looking as scoring a few brownie points with Dad, or else the guy had a daughter he wanted to fuck, or something, anyways, there’s a four-pound mallet in the back and I grab it and hop out the truck and BAM! Right where the neck hits the shell? Stuns it, another whack and I smash its skull.” Michelle hears just this part and flashes me a concerned look.
“C’mon, that’s gross!” I pronounce. “Worse than gross, that’s cruel and uncalled-for.” Michelle takes the barstool on the other side of me, hugging against me. She approves.
“Yeah, Jim, that is pretty sick,” Mike grimaces over his bottle.
“So, what, now you’re some sort of tortophile?” Jim inquires sarcastically. “I’m going to have to dillhole you in front of this beautiful woman over a turtle?”
“We met over a turtle,” Michelle counters. I know that Jim admires Michelle, he’s amazed that I have a woman of such quality, and I have threatened to reveal several longheld secrets to various parties should he disclose the truth of my animosity toward snapping turtles.
“Yes, you did.” He ends it with a long draught of his Guinness and cider, and it will be another six months before any more turtles rear their ugly heads in my life.
We’ve decided to have a dinner party to announce our engagement. I invite Mom and Dad and Michelle invites her parents. We have a big Labor Day BBQ planned for the next weekend, so we want to be able to share the news then with everyone, so this is the formal parents sitting down together night. We don’t tip our hands ahead of time, but I do tell Mom to make sure Dad is dressed to meet Michelle’s parents. Not that he wouldn’t, but I can see him rolling in late off the golf course while the rest of us are waiting at the table.
Michelle’s parents are great, dinner is everything I hoped it would be. After dessert, I start to gather up the saucers and plates, but Michelle’s mom protests. “You fellas go ahead, we women have this.” I start to look at Michelle, but her dad catches my eye.
“I’ve got these.” He says, beaming, sliding the tips of three expensive-looking cigars from his jacket pocket. “Why don’t we go outside.” Not one to deny myself a simple pleasure, I set the plates down and turn to Dad.
“Let me pour some rum, I’ve got this great dark Nepalese in the freezer.”
I meet the guys outside. It’s getting that twilight murkiness out, so I figure we’ll walk around to the back patio, but they’re leaning up against Dad’s trunk, puffing leisurely. I join in and enjoy the warm evening breeze, my last free weekend before stepping down the matrimonial road. Would that the story ended here, but Dad says “I brought you a gift too. It’s in the trunk.”
At first, his tone of voice doesn’t betray the upcoming horror, but as he sweeps his arm toward the car, effectively inviting Michelle’s dad and I to take a step back, something about this strikes me as wrong. Is that a splash of mud across the bumper?
“You know Michael that I was golfing earlier with Peter and Jimmy? Well, we’re up at Fair Haven shooting 18 and I know I have to go home, shower, change, drive here. But I have to pick up some papers over at this guy’s house in Red Creek, so I decide to swing by there on the way home. So I leave there, I’m cruising down Johnnycake Hill Road and I come around the corner and…” His dramatic pause tickles Michelle’s dad, I can see, he’s hanging on Dad’s every word. Brewsters are storytellers by nature, so it’s no surprise, but in this case— The key is in the lock and before the trunk lid lifts, I know exactly what is going to happen.
“Ta-Daaah.” His hand drops from the upright lid in the same sweeping motion he had just employed. In the dark there’s a flash, his hand I believe, and a scream. He’s got a snapping turtle in the trunk and it’s taken a swipe at his hand. I don’t wait to see if she’s latched on, I spring to Dad’s defense. With my rum tumbler, I start pummeling its head.
“Die, you snapping motherfucker, you!” I keep hitting it over and over, like I’m Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, until I feel Michelle’s hand on my shoulder.