Dinner with W.T.
*Title story from Dinner with WT by Rick Baber, TigerEye Publications, 2010
"Boredom and loneliness can drive a man crazy."
Yeah. That's it. Boredom and loneliness. They drove me crazy. The only explanation I can offer for my miserable situation that might be understood by the multitudes reading tomorrow's papers if my plan tonight should fail. An occupational hazard. One that could pay my hospital expenses if I should, somehow, survive this. Pay my funeral expenses if I don't. Workmen's compensation. Your basic insurance fraud. It could work.
There are nicer places than this. I know that for a fact. A month ago - almost to the hour -I was on the 14th floor of The Mirage in Las Vegas, with my wife and son, being served a late dinner in our room by a very polite young potential yuppie in a white suit and bow tie. Tonight, I'm sitting on this hard single bed in this budget motel in north-central Missouri, spilling a chef salad with ranch from a styrofoam go-box onto my shirt as I try to eat it with crackers - in lieu of the plastic fork that was negligently omitted by the waitress at the bar next door. The one I tipped so generously for allowing me to bend the rules and actually get something to eat after they roll up the sidewalks here at ten o'clock.
The better places have those convenient little note pads in the desk drawer, in case one of their patrons should decide to write a note. Or a letter. Or an epitaph. This one's being written on the back of a photocopied map of one of those crummy little pig-farming communities in which I was fortunate enough to ruin a good pair of tennis shoes today. It's not a very big map. I'm wondering already how badly this ink is going to smear on that cheap, single-ply toilet paper.
The better places have a lot of things. But usually not insurance adjusters.
The remote control on the T.V. doesn't work. The nearest ice machine is only an elevator ride away...when the elevator is working. The air conditioner blows warm air. Every night at about 11:45 there's this rapid banging from the room next door, and the sound of a man screaming "OK baby. Now let's hook up those jumper cables!" My T.V. alarm clock is exactly twelve hours off, which complicated waking up on time significantly until I got smart and set the thing to go off bright and early at 7pm this morning. Of course, now, I wish that hadn't worked. If I'd have slept even ten minutes later I probably wouldn't be in the shape I'm in now.
It was about nine this morning when I spotted him trying to cross one of these lettered highways they have here somewhere north of Glascow. Highways with letters for names. Like they only have so many numbers they can use. I had to stop and pick him up. It's just something I always do.
He was very attractive. Unlike any I'd seen back in Arkansas. Bigger around than most, but not as tall. Sort of a sandy-brown color.
I tried to keep him in the front floorboard for a while, but with that flat, oval body he kept getting stuck sideways between the seat and the door whenever I'd get out to work. Then, when I opened the door, he'd fall out and surprise the shit out of the people who walked me back to the car. It's a difficult thing to explain to them. I'm supposed to be a "professional”, like the insurance adjusters on the television commercials. Things like that never happen to the good-hands people.
So, finally, I just had to put him in the trunk and leave the thing unlatched so he wouldn't bake.
When I was my son's age, my dad would always bring stuff home to us when he'd been out on the road working storm claims. Candy. Comic books. Toys. I never have the time or money to go shopping for my kid. I just bring him turtles off the road. He has indicated to me, on more than oneoccasion, that I enjoy it more than he does.
This one I dubbed "W.T." ... "Watch Turtle," like Judge Roy Bean's bear.
When I got back to my motel room in Columbia, at about sundown, I had to figure out how to smuggle him into my room. Again, it's a little hard for a grown man to explain why he's taking a turtle into a motel room. Not that I owed anybody any explanation, but if they did ask it would probably look pretty bad if I refused to answer. I turned him sideways and stuck him into my file box.
He looked a little weathered from spending the day in that hot trunk. Still not sure if he was a terrapin or a water turtle, I ran a couple of inches of water in the bathtub and put him in there to cool off. It's phenomenal how much dirt those things carry inside that shell. In just a few minutes the water in that tub was as murky brown as the Missouri River, and I became afraid that it would leave an indelible stain that I'd have to pay for. And explain. So I took the little guy out and let him run around in the room. Where was he gonna go?
I was starving. The workload of the day, and the fact that I was lost most of the time, left no time for lunch. And I never eat breakfast. And I hadn't eaten dinner the day before because I was so damn tired from climbing roofs all day to look for hail damage. Doc & Eddy's, next door, quit serving food at ten. There was just enough time to change out of my pigcrap-covered clothes (yeah, pig farms are insured, too), take a quick shower, and quietly infiltrate the college crowd for some grub. But when I went to step into the tub, all that brown turtle crud was still in there.
So, I'm down on my knees, naked, leaning over the tub wall, scrubbing the bottom with a washrag, when I realize W.T. hasn't eaten all day either.
"What should I try to feed him?" was my exact thought - just the instant before I felt that intense pain between my legs. Intense. Pain. It took about a tenth of a moment for me to get to my feet. When I looked down to see what had happened perhaps the sudden and shocking development of some kind of weird hernia -W.T. was still there -dangling from my scrotum.
Visually, I'm sure it was a hilarious sight. But, physically, it was more uncomfortable than the imagination will allow one who has not experienced such an occurrence. I assume that would include everyone in the world except me.
I tugged. But he wasn't quite ready to let go.
Suddenly, I flashed back to a moment in my early childhood when my grandpa Burgess warned me about the first alligator snapper I ever saw.
"If he bites you," he said, "He won't let go until lightning strikes!"
"LIGHTNING?" Hell. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Panic was too mild a word for the feeling that was overcoming me. I'd been up here busting my rear for two weeks with a bad toothache and a really nasty case of TMJ, but I didn't think I could go on with a turtle hooked to my nads. It wasn't really that painful, after the initial chomp, because all he got was skin. But the weight was killing me. My voice was already an octave higher.
"But it's not a snapping turtle." I said out loud. “Calm down. Be cool. Maybe it's not even a male."
I placed the chain lock on the door and plugged the little peep hole with toilet paper. Hey, you never know. Some whacko out there in the hall could have some kind of adapter lens that he could put up to that thing and see right into the room.
I tried to reassure myself. "It's not the end of the world, Rick. You just have a loggerhead hanging from your nutsack."
I gently lifted W.T. to relieve some of the pressure, and hobbled over to the bed, thinking that if I just spread out and laid there for a few minutes he'd let go. He didn't.
I lit a cigarette and tried to lean forward and blow smoke in his face. That didn't do any good either.
Panic turned to paranoia. I could see the night clerk (that greasy little weasel bastard with the wire rim glasses) downstairs, with all of his greasy little bug-doctor-weasel bastard friends, gathered around the secretly-installed surveillance camera monitor, spitting beer as they laughed unrestrainedly at the image of the smoking turtle between the naked man's legs. I turned out the lamp beside the bed, but the glow from the television still illuminated me...and W.T. And the damn remote wouldn't work. And it was on cable, showing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I started remembering a story my wife had told me about a woman who brought her husband into the ER at her hospital, in the middle of the night, to have a candle removed from his...his...his posterior. Up until this point I had always thought that would be a nightmare. Now, I wished my problem was that easily explained.
In about half an hour it became apparent to me that W.T. wasn't going to let go on his own. On the surface, it appeared that I had two options: Yank the sonofabitch off, like a tick, and lose a very small, but significant piece of my anatomy...or suffer the humiliation of a trip to the emergency room. Neither choice was particularly appealing.
I was weak from hunger. No way was I going to make it 'til morning without sustenance. So I decided to get something to eat while I thought it over.
Dressed in my baggiest pants, unable to zip them up completely, and a tee shirt, and covered with a buttoned black trench coat, I entered Doc & Eddy's to the roar of a packed house of St. Louis Blues TV hockey fans. Just my luck. Hockey night. Most of them had their backs to me, facing the screens, as I slipped up on a waitress between them and the bar and requested anything to go. It was just a few minutes after ten, and she informed me that I might be able to get a chef salad -sort of leftovers with lettuce - but the grille was shut down. As I was certainly in no position to create a scene by initiating an argument with her, I graciously accepted, and took a seat in the darkest corner I could find.
In a minute she brought me a beer to drink while I waited. Curiosity must have gotten the best of her. As she handed it to me she looked around at the college crowd, and back at me.
"Isn't it a little warm tonight to be wearing that coat?"
"Warm?" I don't know what made her think that. Maybe because everybody else in there was wearing those preppy blue and white striped tee shirts and those preppy knee-knocker shorts and topsider shoes with those little short preppy pansy white socks. Maybe because beads of sweat were forming on my forehead and trickling down and dripping off the end of my nose.
No. She wasn't saying that at all. What she was really saying was "Is that a turtle in your pants, or are you just glad to see me?"
The wheels of my brain had just begun spinning wildly in search of an answer to her question when W.T. decided he was going to take a walk with my baggage. His hind claws were ripping my thighs to shreds, and I could see my lap jumping up and down under the raincoat. I gritted my teeth toavoid screaming - which sent TMJ pains shooting all through my head. And through all of this, I was somewhat happy, because I thought he might let go and stick his big brown head through the coat and say hello to this nosey bitch.
"I've been sick," I said quietly as I handed her a ten for a six-dollar tab. "Keep the change."
"Oh, you're a doll," she said, turning sideways just enough for me to tell by her silhouette against the light from one of the TV screens that she was carrying a load of her own. "In about four months I'll need all the money I can get."
"A little bambino!" I acknowledged, with a big, wide, toothy grimace on my face that I was trying now to disguise as a pleasant smile.
Hell, I had to say something. But I didn't mean to start up a fucking conversation. She must've been as starved for somebody to talk to as I was for food. Right there - at that most... inconvenient time, she just opened up to me like I was her shrink or something. It seems that she'd been living with this guy for the past eight years. About three years ago, her parents finally learned to accept him and her dad built them an apartment over their garage. But the dude didn't really want to get married, so they got into this big fight about it and she ran out and got knocked up by this Cambodian dude she'd been having cybersex with on the internet. Now, sometime after the baby's born, and she can fit into a nice looking wedding dress, they (she and the Cambodian) are going to try to get married. But she doesn't know if it's going to work because the old boyfriend is still living above her parent's garage. On top of that, she finally got her folks to give the OK for her to bring the Cambodian over for dinner, but, when she did, her mom's lips got numb and her legs gave out, and they had to rush her to the hospital. They did a bunch of CAT scans and MRI's but the doctor couldn't find anything wrong with her. He did indicate that the "spell" could have been caused by some kind of stress.
And, speaking of stress, I was under plenty. While her story did serve to take my mind off my own troubles long enough to laugh uncontrollably at hers for a few seconds, W.T.'s next attempt at a stroll brought me sharply back to my own present reality. When the waitress ran off to the bathroom, crying, I took the opportunity to escape.
With one hand carrying my dinner and the other in my coat pocket, supporting my load (potentially a line for an Alanis Morissette song), I slipped in the back door of the motel and took the elevator to my floor.
Back on the bed - just me and W.T. in my tee shirt - I opened the styrofoam box to consume my last supper. I had decided on the way back that I was going to eat, and then jump out the third floor window.
Oh, sure. You pompous asshole. Go ahead and find fault with my rationale. You don't think that's what you'd do in this situation? Well, fuck you! You've never been in this situation, have you? You've never had a five-pound reptile dangling from your family jewels, have you?
Well, I did. And, at the moment, that was the best I could come up with. It seemed rational enough when I thought of it. It couldn't be worse than going to a doctor. It couldn't be worse than looking my wife straight in the face and saying "Well, honey, a turtle ate it."
If it killed me, it would be a relatively painless death. If it didn't, maybe it would jar W.T. loose and I could, somehow, blame the wound on the fall. After all, a suicide attempt is much more socially acceptable than...whatever this is. I could check into a treatment center and everybody would think I'd finally grown up like the rest of them.
But, as I received nourishment, some of my reasoning capabilities returned. I have an idea.
It's a mammal. Right? I mean, it can't breathe under water. Right?
When I finish this salad, I'm going to fill the tub to the rim with the hottest water I can stand, and I'm going to take me a muddy bath. If W.T. wants air, he's going to have to let go to get to the top to get it. I'll be free. I can live.
Or...I could drown the little bastard with a death grip on my family jewels.
That's when I jump.
(c) 2010, Rick Baber, TigerEye Publications