The morning reaches for 11 a.m. I am rinsing breakfast dishes -- cereal bowls, spoons, bits of pulp off the rims of juice glasses -- and listening to a game show on television. I never watch these shows, only listen, not wanting to see well-dressed people, their shell white, exuberant smiles missing easy questions, though some how lucky enough to amass 10 or 15 thousand dollars. Manatee, I think, while pouring the leftover milk from Teddy's cereal bowl down the drain. Why can't the boys ever finish the milk in their bowls? I pour and manatees bravely dodge Cheerios, their huge bodies graceful, flirting in and out of the green coastal waterways of Southern Florida. The buzzer sounds. "I'm so sorry," says the show host, "but you still have $8,000 left." I tip Eric's cereal bowl, consciously pouring the leftover milk into my coffee cup. The coffee will be too sweet and taste faintly of oats, but I feel sacred doing this, a holy part of the food chain.
Tomorrow I should go back to work. I have no more sick time left. I have stayed home for almost a week, wandering days in my frayed blue robe, barefoot, smoking cigarettes. I am not physically sick, just tired, worn down, dry. The only other time I felt close to this was right after my divorce, but then I felt chipped, fragmented, scattered from my core. This time it is different. I am not broken apart, but melting to silica and soda ash, my transparencies heavily borne away, sea on glass, beaten smooth and vulnerable.
Next week holds the Fourth of July. Teddy asked me before bed last night if we could go to see the fire works on the beach. Ankle-thin bulbs under his pajama cuffs, his voice a begging, confronting treble, his eye brows heavy: "Do you think we could go to the fireworks, Mom?" Can you get out of your bathrobe, Mom? Can you drive us to the beach? Can you bear to look at the exploding stars, fragments of light melting into dark blue waves? The buzzer sounds. "I'm sooo sorry," says the game show host, in a slow drawl. Boron, I think, before turning up the set. Boron added to glass gives it strength.
Tomorrow I will go back to work, I say this aloud as I load white uniforms into the washer, add a cup of bleach. There is entirely too much white in my life. White halls, white shoes silent on white floors, all permeated with the smell of disinfectant. I think of buying a red cotton sweater to wear on the floor.
The charge nurse on pediatrics, handing me white kleenex, patting my shoulder, said, "Take a few days off." I could not explain to her that it was not Andrew Roger's death, not the release of his bleeding out red from his nose and mouth and IV sites, too few platelets to bind his blood, hold it inside, but his tight fingers gripping mine like a promise. All the fingers I've held, fingers curved like shells, years of fingers inter twined, chainlinked miles of fencing holding in the landscape. All the years of full, acrid bedpans and white sheets, marking temperatures on charts slowly, neatly, right hand in blue pen. I am drowning in cotton balls. Drowning in a darkened house and old blue robe.
Lincoln, I yell at the TV set. Lincoln is the capital of Nebraska, population 129,541. I wonder how much a manager for McDonalds makes in Lincoln or a telephone operator.
I work the 3-11 shift in the summer so that I will have more time to spend with my sons. My mother comes over at 2:30, plays with Eric and Teddy, feeds them dinner, takes them to an occasional movie, puts them to bed. I've asked her to move in with us many times, the boys could share a room, but she always refuses. I think she is hoping I will meet a man, remarry, live happily ever after, laugh more. I used to wish this, too, had a strong need for a back to lean against, long calves to wrap my toes around.
"When threatened, sea cucumbers are able to throw up their insides. While their attacker goes after their insides, they creep away." I did not know this. I ignore this. I ignore the buzzer that goes off in my head. Wrong. I put out my cigarette, half smoked, in the ash tray Teddy made for me for Mother's Day.
Eric and Teddy have turned on the lawn sprinkler. I hear their shrieking, laughing in the sound of spray. In a moment I will call them into the kitchen to rub sunscreen on their shoulders. They are pale blond and freckled. Like me, they burn easily. My care giving, motherly ministrations have recently begun to insult their boy-child invincibility. I will give them popsicles, cherry and lime; I will kiss their noses. I turn off the television, light another cigarette.
The boys will stay with their father for two weeks in August. He and his thin dark-haired wife have them every other weekend and two weeks in the summer. Ted acts as if he is doing me a favor each time he picks them up. Holding out his large hands, palms up, thumb turned inward, "You'll have some time to your self, Emily. A nice break." I miss them when they are gone, their trilled questions, freckles, sweaty squabbles and dirty hands, pinwheel whorls on the backs of their heads. When they are with their father I feign their presence; I vacuum around Eric's matchbox cars, leave Teddy's yellow pajamas behind the bathroom door, eat crunchy peanut butter on Wonder Bread.
"Mom." Eric is rushing wind through the open deck door and into the kitchen. "Mom, we found a hu normous turtle." Eric speaks in exclamation points. They dot his speech like stars. I like the words he creates better than any in the dictionary.
"How hu-normous?" I ask. Eric opens his arms as far as they will go. His face is flushed, his movements quick, fingers dart about, pink geckos scurrying in the air. His father thinks he lacks self-discipline and direction. I think he is four.
Right now Eric is hopping up and down, banging on my knees with the palms of his hands. "You have to come and see it, Mom. Teddy wants to pick it up." I will not get dressed and go to work, shop at the market, see a movie, but I will put on clothes and go see their turtle.
"Give me a minute to get dressed, honey. I'll be right out." I am talking to Eric's back. "Eric, if the turtle has colors on its shell or can pull its head and feet all the way into its shell, it's safe to pick it up. But if not, it might be a snapper." Eric runs outside.
"Mom says it's not a snapper, so we can touch it."
"How does she know that, meatball brain? She hasn't even looked at it." Teddy is six and lost faith in my magical powers when he turned five.
"Because she's a nurse, stupid."
Terrapin. Probably from Johnsons Pond, I think on my way to my bedroom. I pull a pair of jeans out of the bottom drawer of my bureau, an old gray sweatshirt of Ted's off the closet floor. I run my fingers through my short hair and look in the mirror over my bureau. I pass the test: pale, tired, suburban mother of two boys. It surprises me how little armor it takes to cover a week spent at home in a bathrobe. The boys are standing a few feet away from the turtle which is almost hidden at the base of a stand of tiger lilies. The turtle's head and feet are pulled inside a shell splashed with spots of red and yellow. It is not hu normous, but it is beautiful. I notice a chip on the edge of its shell and then a long crack on the right side. It will not live long.
" I think the turtle might be very scared of us," I tell my sons. "See how it's hiding its head? Let's go inside, have some lunch, and give the turtle a chance to crawl back home." And die somewhere else. I put my arms around their shoulders, Teddy pulls away from me.
"But, Mom, we can't just leave it. The pond is far away." I watch the muscles around Teddy's mouth work to smother tears. "The turtle will never make it to the pond. It's hurt." I look at my sons' dirty bare feet, the clear beads of water of the grass, the injured turtle. I do not look at Teddy's face, his shaking lower lip. I want to say the turtle made it to our yard, it can crawl back. "Teddy." I look at his eyes. They are the same light green as his father's, but the skin around his eyes lies soft, sad, compassionate. His sun-burned cheeks are wet. "O.K. You two get dressed. I'll find a box to put the turtle in. We'll drive it to the pond."
The boys take turns getting dressed and guarding the turtle. I look in closets for a box, under the sink for a pail. The only box I can find that is big enough for the turtle is full of Eric's matchbox cars. I decide he will not mind if we use it and dump the little metallic cars and trucks onto the dining room rug. The noise they make is metallic blue, red, purple -- small collisions of no consequence. I find my car keys and purse on the dining room table, under a weeks' worth of newspapers and mail. I look at my reflection in the hall mirror, put on red lipstick. Everyone is ready, but the turtle.
I tell the boys I will pick up the turtle; it might bite. I do not want either of them to see how badly its shell is cracked. The turtle sticks its head out suddenly and looks at me. Its yellow lidless eyes entreat, say pain, say kiss it. I blink. The turtle's eyes are blank pale moons. It opens and shuts its mouth a few times, gulping air, pulls its head back into the shell. I put it in the box.
Teddy sits quietly on the drive to the pond. He holds the box in his lap, stares at the turtle as if it might vanish from a lack of perceptual vigilance. Eric fills the warm air inside the car with questions. "What do turtles eat?"
"Insects," I tell him, "And small fish, like minnows. Turtles eat little creatures that feed on algae. That's why they live in ponds. Their food supply is there."
"Do they sleep?"
"Yes, but they don't snore like you do." This gets a small laugh from Teddy, more like a snort really, a breath of disdain from his nose. I make a left at Greenway street.
"Why did the turtle walk to our yard?"
"Maybe he was bored with the pond and wanted to see the world. Or, maybe he took a wrong turn."
I don't tell him from watching television. "I read a lot when I was young. And, I remember little things, details, especially about animals."
Eric sits up straighter. "Mom, would you teach me to read tonight?"
"Sure, baby." I reach over and squeeze his thigh.
"No one can learn to read in one night." Teddy is still angry at me. He can not forgive this past week as easily as Eric.
"Mom could. Right, Mom?" I don't answer but read the road signs so that I don't miss the turn.
Teddy carries the box close to his chest as we walk the short distance from the road to the water. I smell green growth, brown decay. It is dark quiet, still aired. Tree branches arch high over head, a cathedral dome. Teddy notices other turtles sunning on a log at the edge of the pond. His face brightens.
"Do you think those are his parents?" Eric asks. I nod my head yes.
Teddy puts the box down. I lift the turtle out and place it in the soft mud and leaves at the edge of the pond. After a few minutes his head and feet stick out. The needle claws on his feet make lines on the green deer moss and mud as he slips into the thick pond water.
"Goodbye, Alpert," says Teddy softly.
Just as softly I ask, "Alpert?" Teddy nods his head. Eric holds my hand. I put my other arm around Teddy's shoulders. He does not pull away this time.
Copyright 1994, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Marinara, Martha. (1994). Bearing witness. WILLA, Volume III, 12-13.