Tuesday, July 15, 2008
By Jan Melara
We moved out to the lake a couple of years ago. At first I missed the hustle and bustle of city life terribly. I even found myself looking back fondly on the construction workers’ wolf whistles that had once so annoyed me as I ran their gauntlet on my way to and from modeling jobs in the city.
But that is all behind me. Now I am satisfied to just stay home and feed turtles from our dock. The yellow bellied sliders who paddle slowly up to me for their daily ration of stale bread have become my most treasured companions as I wait for my husband’s return from his increasingly lengthy trips into the city.
That is why I was so upset a month or so ago when I began to notice my little reptilian friends acting differently. Where before they would always be waiting under our dock ready to paddle out enthusiastically at the first sound of my steps on the rough wooden planks above their heads, they began to come instead from deeper water and hung back fearfully until I retreated onto dry land no matter how much I coaxed them to come and eat. I couldn’t understand their sudden fearfulness until one afternoon when I happened to look out my kitchen window and saw our grey and grizzled old neighbor, Bert, standing on his dock with a pellet gun in one hand and a bag of catfish nuggets in the other. He was tossing the nuggets into the water to entice my darlings. Then when the innocent little dears came in to try to eat he would shoot at them with the pellet gun.
“My God,” I thought as I ran out the door and down our gently sloping lawn to the lake. “He’s been a little off ever since his wife died last year, but this is going too far. I’ve got to stop him.” Bert looked back over his shoulder when he heard me screaming, “Stop that! What are you doing? Stop right this instant!” but he managed to squeeze off one more round before I could get close enough to try to pull the gun out of his hand. It was that round that killed Ole Dave, one of my favorite turtles and the father (or maybe mother-I couldn’t tell) of Pipsqueak, the newest addition to my lunch bunch.
I lunged for the glistening gun in Bert’s hand, but he deftly stepped aside just as I reached him so that my momentum carried me straight off the dock and into the lake. When I came up, spluttering, Bert was already lowering the swim ladder and apologizing like crazy. He really hadn’t meant for that to happen, he said, but I had surprised him. “What were you trying to do, anyway?” he asked as I hauled myself back onto the dock.
I crossed my arms over my chest to protect myself from Bert’s hungry stare, and said, “I was trying to get that gun away from you. You killed Ole Dave and now Pipsqueak will probably die, too, since he doesn’t have his dad anymore.” Bert looked around, bewildered.
“Dave? Pipsqueak?” he said, as if he had no idea what he’d just done.
“That turtle you just murdered for the sport of it, Bert,” I said. The water in my shoes was beginning to make it feel as if someone had replaced the insoles with slices of ham. I needed to get back to the house so I could change into some dry clothes.
“Oh, you’re upset because I’m shooting turtles! I thought I’d hit somebody across on the other shore or something the way you were carrying on. I shoot them things because they’re nuisances, honey. They’re taking over the lake,” he said, looking me up and down. I might as well have been naked for all the good my soaking wet clothes were doing me.
“Well I wish you’d stop your senseless killing, Bert. I feed those babies. They’re my pets.”
Bert drug his eyes back up to my face. It looked like it was a big effort for him. I hugged my arms tighter across my chest. “Aw, I’m just restoring the balance of nature. You feeding ‘em like you do makes ‘em overpopulate. I probably couldn’t shoot enough of the things to even knock a dent in ‘em, anyway. They sure ain’t about to be extinct, are they?”
I had to concede that there did seem to be plenty of turtles in the lake, but I told the old widower in no uncertain terms just what I thought of his cruelty. “I’m calling the game warden soon as I get dried off, Bert,” I yelled over my shoulder as I walked back up the hill toward my house.
“Go ahead, he’ll tell you the same thing I just did,” the old coot shot back.
To my dismay, that was exactly what the park ranger did say when I called him after toweling off. There were plenty of turtles in the lake, their population probably could stand a little thinning out, it really wasn’t in their best interests to hand feed them, yadda, yadda.
“Just wait until my husband gets home, you old Nazi,” I whispered as I glared at the side of Bert’s house through my bathroom window.
But when my spouse got home, he was no more help than the park ranger had been. “Honey, you’re alone out here in the sticks all day and I think it’s kind of gotten to you a little. These are turtles we’re talking about here, not people. They’re not even mammals, for goodness sakes! Maybe we could get you a puppy.” I didn’t want a puppy, though. I wanted Bert to stop his wholesale murder of the pets I already had.
Over the next few days, I continued to fume inwardly, although outwardly I was the same polite, efficient, pleasant housewife I’d become since my marriage and our move to the country. Inside, though, the old Samantha, the one who’d clawed herself a nice comfortable niche in the brutal world of photographic modeling, began to surface again. I thought of ways to pay Bert back for what he’d done. “If those were people he killed, he’d be heading for the electric chair right now,” I thought, but never said aloud even to my husband.
I fantasized about ways to exact retribution from Bert for his killing spree even as I tried unsuccessfully to coax my poor terrorized little friends back to my dock. Poison was out-I had no idea how to go about getting any without having it traced right back to me. I obviously couldn’t get the shotgun from its rack in the garage and just walk next door and shoot the unrepentant killer with it, however satisfying that would be. Strangling seemed like it might take too much strength on my part; although Bert was pretty old and frail he was probably stronger than he looked.
I still hadn’t come across anything that seemed doable when the phone rang one Friday afternoon just as I came in from the dock. It was Bert, calling from the hospital in town. He wanted to know if I could give him a ride home because his doctor didn’t want him driving. I told him of course I could and got my car keys.
When I arrived at the Hickory Regional Medical Center, Bert was still in one of those awful gowns with the open backs. While he changed into his own clothes, I stepped into the hallway and talked with his doctor. It seemed Bert had gone in the day before for a cardiac catheterization, which showed that he needed open heart surgery. The operation was scheduled for the following Monday. “I really wanted him to stay here where we can watch him until we can get this thing done, but he insists on going home for the weekend,” the handsome cardiologist told me.
“Say, you look awfully familiar. Have I met you before?” he added. I said that he’d probably seen me in a magazine, since I used to model for a living.
“Oh, that’s it! You were Miss January a few years back, weren’t you?” he said, with a lovely red tone starting to creep up his neck.
I smiled and nodded. “I was quite taken with you…I mean, there were some interesting stories in that issue,” he said and blushed even more deeply.
“Do you have any instructions for me about old Bert?” I asked in order to try and get him off a subject which was obviously making him uncomfortable.
The red started to subside from his face as he got back onto a more professional keel. “Oh, yes. Like I said, he should really be here in the hospital over the weekend. But since he won’t stay, he definitely should not do anything strenuous while he’s awaiting surgery there at home. I don’t want him doing anything at all that would put a strain on his heart. For instance, this is not the weekend to pull out your old Miss January photos and go over them with him, if you get my drift.” He was blushing again even as he chuckled at his own words. I said I understood and eventually, after a nurse finally wheeled Bert out to my car, I drove the old murderer home.
“Well, I’ll come over and check on you again later, Bert,” I said sweetly as I closed his front door. Then I went home and had a late lunch before taking a nice shower and brushing out my long blonde curls into an abandoned looking mane. As soon as I had toweled off, I slipped on a short cotton housedress and some flip flops. Then I ran back over to Bert’s house. “What was his wife’s name?” I wondered during the short trip across the lawn. It came to me just as I let myself into Bert’s back door. “Fran! That’s it. She was named Fran,” I said to myself.
Bert was sitting in his recliner in the den gazing out over the lake when I arrived, but he looked up as soon as he heard the door open. There seemed to be no point in wasting any time, so I immediately went forward with my hastily formed plan.
“Bert, you know I’m awfully lonely over there with my husband gone into the city so much,” I said and kicked my flip flops off before adding, “Maybe you could, you know, help me out,” just to make sure he understood what I was getting at. When I was positive I had his full attention, I pulled the thin cotton housedress off my shoulders and let it fall to the floor, so that I was standing there completely naked in front of the old reprobate. He shot up from his recliner and started pulling his plaid shirt open without even trying to undo the buttons. It wasn’t easy, but I waited until he was actually in my arms before looking up as if I’d seen a ghost and crying out, “Oh my God, Fran! What in the world are you doing here?”
It was all, as I had hoped, just too much for the old geezer’s heart. As soon as I said the name Fran, he started clutching his chest and turning all purple. I eased him gently to the floor and then slowly got dressed again, talking all the while about how wrong it had been for him to shoot Ole Dave and the others. When I was sure Bert was dead, I picked up the phone by his recliner and dialed 911. “I need an ambulance. I just came over to check on my neighbor and I think he’s had a heart attack,” I said into the old fashioned receiver.
No one has found out what part I played in Bert’s death. Most people seem to think it was just time for the old man to go - simply a part of the natural order of things, which is exactly what I think.
Written by: Jan Melara