by JL Higgs
Startled, Roy’s hand slipped. The shaving razor’s blade gashed his chin.
“Shit,” he muttered, setting down the razor. Blood mixed with the shaving foam, turning it pink. To stem the pain and bleeding, Roy picked up the chalky styptic pencil, wet its tip, and pressed it against the cut.
“Roy,” said Helen, opening the bathroom door. “There you are. Can you untangle this?” She held the gold neck chain he’d given her when Janey had been born toward him.
“Put it on the dresser,” he said, resuming shaving. “I’ll look at it when I finish. Where’s Livy and Billy?”
“They’re dressed and downstairs with Toby.”
Rinsing the blade, Roy could only shake his head.
After finishing shaving Roy headed downstairs. Passing Helen in the living room, he handed her the necklace. She thanked him and began putting it on in the front hallway mirror as he continued past.
“Who wants cereal?” called out Roy, entering the kitchen.
“Well, alright then.” He grabbed a box of cereal, two bowls and placed them on the table. Then he opened the fridge, took out the plastic pitcher of milk and set it down next to the cereal box.
“Hey Grampy, Toby wants cereal too,” said Billy, smiling as he poured cereal into his bowl with two hands.
“Yeah, where’s Toby’s bowl?” asked Livy, copying her older brother.
“Toby doesn’t eat cereal,” replied Roy, mussing Billy’s hair, then lunging at Livy as if to tickle her. She squealed.
“Roy!” said Helen, joining them. “I just finished brushing his hair so he’d look nice for church.”
Making a sad face, in a high voice Roy said, “Grandma just finished brushing your hair for church.” Billy and Livy laughed.
“Grandma, can Toby sit next to me while I eat my cereal?”
“Of course, Livy, honey.”
“I’ll pour the milk!” announced Billy, grabbing the pitcher’s handle.
“Noooooooo!!!” yelled Helen and Roy as the pitcher tipped forward. Milk spilled onto the table, the other chairs, and the kitchen floor. Billy looked at his grandparents, his eyes full of tears.
“No problem, little man,” said Roy. “Grampy will handle things down here…”
“And we’ll go upstairs and change your outfit,” said Helen, taking Billy by the hand. She pointed to Roy’s chin. It took a moment before he grasped what she wanted and rubbed away the dry styptic pencil residue.
“Yeah, Honey,” said Roy pouring some of the remaining milk into Livy’s bowl.
“Grandma said Toby could sit next to me.”
“You’re right. She did say that.” Roy lifted Toby’s cardboard box off the floor and placed it in a clean spot on the table. Toby raised his head and blinked at Roy with his bug eyes as if trying to get him in focus. There were white trails on his shell from where milk had landed, then slid off.
Roy poured himself a cup of coffee, grabbed a handful of paper towels and started cleaning up. He frowned at Toby, who looked like he was amused and smiling.
With Billy and Livy buckled in the back seat of the car, Roy drove carefully through the neighborhood. They’d gotten a later start than he’d planned. Not due to the spilled milk, but because after they’d gotten settled in the car, Livy remembered she’d forgotten to say goodbye to Toby. So, they’d had to traipse back in the house so she could tell him they’d be returning after church. Toby. The way they behaved around that damn turtle was ridiculous. When Helen found him in the yard, right after they’d moved in, Roy figured Toby would be dead inside a couple of years. Then he learned the damn things could live as pets 30 – 40 years. 30 – 40 years!
Now, having surpassed 30 years, it wouldn’t surprise Roy one bit if Toby hung on past 40 just to spite him. Stupid turtle. What kind of pet was a turtle anyway? It wasn’t like a dog. You could do things with a dog. But a turtle? They didn’t do anything. Poke their heads and legs in and out of their shells. Move slow as hell.
And Helen made a big deal of that dang turtle. Birthday presents. Christmas presents. Silliness. Roy thought the foolishness would end after they had Janey. But nope. Instead there ended up being the two of them making a fuss over Toby, talking to him as if he were human, pampering him. And now even the grandkids had joined in. As far as Roy was concerned, the thing was a darn nuisance.
“Roy,” said Helen, “Aren’t they doing a nice job renovating Mary Smith’s old house?” She waved at the not so new neighbors, who’d bought the Smith house when Mary’s son had to put her in a home for the aged. They’d first encountered them one Saturday at the supermarket. Roy had gone to get bread, only to return to the deli and find Helen talking with the young negro couple. She introduced him and Roy had nodded, before tucking his hands under his armpits, a nervous habit. After Helen finished chatting and they’d moved on, she’d mentioned possibly inviting the couple to their church. Roy had responded they probably attended their own Negro church somewhere. After all, it served to reason, they’d naturally be more comfortable among their own people.
Glancing over at the Smith house, Roy saw the husband on a ladder painting the house’s shutters. The wife was sitting on the front steps dabbing at the handrails.
“It’s Sunday,” he said. “People belong in church, not painting.” Like Jews and those idol worshiping Catholics with the statues in their churches and yards, they probably aren’t even Christians, thought Roy. And don’t get him started on those terrorists.
“Well, I think the sprucing up they’re doing looks nice. Even if it is Sunday.”
Of course, you do, thought Roy. Sweet Helen. To her, things were always “good”, “nice”, or “cute.” After over 30 years of marriage, he knew people still wondered what had led her to accept his proposal. He’d been a mere country boy when her father hired him to work in the furniture store. Later he learned her father admitted to giving him the job because he’d never seen such a hungry, desperate-looking person in his life. Helen and her folks were city people. They were used to fine things. And Roy? In most city folk’s eyes, he was nothing and came from nothing.
In big block letters, the announcement board in front of the church read “ALL ARE WELCOME.” Beneath that was the title of that day’s sermon, “Crisis in America.” Walking up the church’s front steps, Roy was proud to be seen attending church with his grandchildren. He could recall seeing the Ten Commandments prominently displayed on wall plaques in people’s homes when he was a small boy. That was common back then. People felt children should have a solid religious upbringing. But like most things, that had been a bone of contention with his son-in-law, Simon. When he’d brought up the topic after Billy was born, Simon had said he and Janey were agnostics.
Looking at Janey incredulously, Roy had said, “What do you mean you don’t believe in God!”
“Dad,” she’d said. “We’re not atheists. We’re agnostics. It means we don’t know if there is or isn’t a God. That’s completely different than saying we don’t believe in God or there is no God. Besides, religion is not a panacea for all the world’s problems.”
That had stuck in Roy’s craw. Agnostic, atheist, as far as he was concerned it was the same difference. Either you’re a believer or you’re not. For God’s sakes. What were they going to bring their kids up as, nothings? Didn’t they realize that was an affront to God and by not believing in God and Jesus you were destined for hell? And who was Simon to lecture him? He wasn’t one of his college students. What did Simon know about raising kids? Roy knew a heck of a lot more than someone with a whole 5 years experience. And Simon had thought well enough of Roy’s handiwork to have married Janey.
What had happened to the little girl who’d played second base on his little league baseball team? The little girl who’d adored him. Where had she gone? Now, he had to settle for the adoration of a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and at times, Helen. Back when he was coaching little league, girls couldn’t play on the boys’ teams. But he’d taught Janey the game, and she was a darn good ball player. She deserved to play and he needed a second baseman. The league officials balked at the idea, but Roy had persisted until they gave in. That little girl had been her daddy’s girl.
But this Janey? Since she’d left home for college, she’d changed. And Simon! He was a bit too outspoken, opinionated, and full of himself for Roy’s taste. In fact, sometimes he seemed downright disrespectful, talking down to Roy like he was some yokel or bumpkin. Not being a city fella like Simon didn’t mean he was an idiot! This new Janey and this new attitude seemed to have started when she got involved with him.
When Janey and Simon had moved back home to raise their kids, Roy had been elated. Here kids could grow up safe and run free. People were friendly and there was a sense of community. But since she’d returned, things hadn’t gone as Roy had expected. Everything was about science. If scientific proof existed for something, fine. If not... well… that’s what was wrong with scientists, no faith, no belief or trust.
And where were she and that husband of her’s now? Off at a weekend science conference and due back late that afternoon to pick up their kids.
As the minister delivered the sermon, Roy nodded his head in agreement. Strong family values, personal independence, and hard work instead of handouts were under siege. There was too much secularism. People turned a blind eye to all kinds of immoral behavior and allowed it to flourish - using the wrong bathrooms, abortion. What kind of people murdered innocent little babies? Regardless of how they were conceived? Smart-alecks like Simon talked about “choice.” They said people like Roy acted like “life began at conception and ended at birth.” Just because Roy had no answer to who should bear responsibility for caring for and raising these children didn’t mean he was wrong. Wasn’t that their parents’ responsibility? It certainly wasn’t his! People like him and Helen needed to help set things right, restore them back to the way they should be.
After church, Roy, Helen, and their grandkids returned home. Helen changed out of her Sunday best and started preparing lunch.
“Who wants to help Grampy measure out the space for the new garden?” called out Roy. “Billy?”
“I was going to play with Toby.”
“How about you, little princess?
“I want to play with Toby, too. Can we Grandma?
“Of course you can, honey. But I don’t want either of you getting dirty. Your parents will be here in a while.”
Toby. Toby. Toby. Roy watched Billy scoop up the turtle in his box and dash out the door. Livy followed at his heels.
“You think that’s wise?” asked Roy. “Them taking Toby outside?”
“They’ll be fine. Since you’ll be outback, just make sure they don’t get dirty.”
Roy shrugged and left through the back door. Walking toward the shed, he felt a sense of satisfaction. He’d built it himself after they moved in. In fact, Toby and the shed had both taken up residence around the same time, over 30 years ago.
Roy opened the shed’s door and entered. Everything inside was neatly arranged and in its place. That’s how Roy liked things. While the house was Helen’s domain, the shed was definitely his and she rarely ventured into it.
Roy slipped the metal yardstick off the nail he’d hammered into a two by four at the back of the shed. Yardstick and stakes in hand, he went to measure the space for the new garden.
Standing near the spot he’d chosen, Roy made sure he had a clear line of sight to Billy and Livy. He knew who would be held responsible if they got the least bit dirty and it definitely wouldn’t be either of them. Fortunately, they were sitting on the grass, Toby’s box flipped on its side next to them.
Roy measured the length of the new garden and put in stakes as markers. As he started pacing off the width, he heard Helen call out that lunch was ready.
“Billy and Livy?” said Roy, drawing their attention. “Head on up to the house to eat. Tell Grandma I’ll be there shortly. Just need to finish up. And don’t forget to wash your hands.”
Roy was opening the back door to the house when a car pulled into the driveway.
“Saw your neighbors hard at work on their house as we came in,” said Simon as he and Janey got out of the car.
“Looks nice,” chimed in Janey.
“Yes, doesn’t it,” agreed Helen, standing just inside the door.
Roy nodded. If it had been him, he’d have bought a home located among his own people. But it was easier not to say anything. Lately, it seemed like everything he said could be found fault with. Like when those neighbors first moved in and he mentioned a Negro couple had bought the Smith’s house. Simon had immediately said, “That word isn’t used anymore, Dad. Nowadays the preferred terms are African American or black.”
It had taken all Roy’s strength to hold his tongue. Negroes weren’t black. More like different shades of brown. When he’d been a boy, he’d been white and they were colored or Negro. Today, he was still white. So why should they be called something else? Girls were now women. Homos, gays. What the hell did “gay” mean? Happy to be homosexual? And there were all those damn letters LGB whatever always being tossed around. Why did things have to be so darn complicated nowadays?
Things had even changed at the store. When Roy and Helen inherited it after her father died, he’d been excited to have his own business. Helen had left him completely in charge of things and he’d done well. Been a good provider. But lately, though he hadn’t broached the idea to Helen, he’d been thinking about selling the business. For a while now, most of the people who came in the store seemed to speak English with an accent. They could be hard to understand. When two or more of them came in together and it got close to closing the deal, they’d start talking to each other in some foreign language. Talk about rude. What was he supposed to do? Stand there, waiting?
That’s why he now let Curtis wait on most of the customers and stayed in the back office. Curtis was more than capable. And that’s what he was there for, what Roy was paying him to do. And people liked Curtis. When those two young fellas came in the other week to buy a new bed, he’d done an excellent job upselling them. And the Negro couple that bought the Smith house? He’d sold them a beautiful expensive cherry wood dining room set. Roy hadn’t mentioned that to Helen. She’d have asked if he’d waited on them, them being neighbors and all. But why should he have? He owned the store and they were in good hands with Curtis. No customers received preferential treatment. Everyone got treated equally.
“Who wants ice cream?” announced Roy as the lunch dishes were being cleared from the table.
“A little ice cream never hurt anyone. Besides, you’ve always had a sweet tooth.”
“Yeah,” replied Janey. “And mom says I inherited it from you.” She stuck out her tongue, then smiled.
“And you’ve passed it on to them,” said Helen, nodding toward the children as she took the ice cream from the freezer and began scooping it into dishes.
“How was your conference?” asked Roy. He placed a spoonful of ice cream in his mouth.
“I met this other professor from California. She and I discussed collaborating on a paper about climate change,” said Janey. She put a hand over Simon’s clenched fist. He nodded and swallowed some ice cream.
“Well, that’s good,” said Roy. “Ain’t it, Helen.”
Simon stood up, pushing back his chair. “Well, we’ve got to get on the road.”
“What’s your hurry. Can’t you all stay and visit a while longer?”
“Sorry, Dad. The kids need to get to bed and Simon and I have school in the morning.”
Roy stood up and walked over to Livy. “Where’s Grampy’s hug?”
“Right here!” she yelled, wrapping her arms around his neck.
He straightened up. Holding Livy in his arms he kissed her forehead, then said, “that’s my girl.”
He set Livy on her feet and turned to Billy. As Roy leaned down to give him a hug, Billy stuck out his hand.
“Well all right then,” said Roy, chuckling. He looked at Janey and Simon. She shrugged and Simon shook his head. Roy laughed and gave Billy’s hand a solid shake.
“Hugs for everyone,” said Helen, smiling and wrapping her arms around Simon.
As Helen and Roy stood in the doorway waving goodbye, she slipped her arm around his waist.
“It was nice having them for the weekend.”
“Sure was,” he said.
“I didn’t realize it had gotten so late.”
“You’ve had a busy weekend Grandma. Why don’t you head on upstairs and get in your nightgown. I’ll lock up.”
Rising on her toes, Helen kissed Roy’s cheek and left to go upstairs. Roy rinsed off the dishes and loaded them into the dishwasher. Suddenly, Helen reappeared in the kitchen doorway.
“Toby. Where’s Toby?”
Roy looked at where Toby’s box usually sat on the floor. The space was empty.
“He must still be outside,” she said, grabbing a sweater and pulling it on. “I let Billy and Livy take him out in his box.”
“Don’t go getting upset.”
“I should have listened to you,” she said, opening the back door. “You asked if I thought it was a good idea.”
The door banged shut.
Roy grabbed a flashlight from a kitchen drawer and went after her. “Helen..., Helen,” he called. “You’re outside in a nightgown and a sweater.”
“I don’t care,” she tossed back over her shoulder, rushing deeper into the dark backyard.
Hurrying, the light from the flashlight bouncing off the ground, Roy caught up to her. “He can’t have gotten far. Turtles don’t move that fast.”
“Look. There’s his box,” she cried, running to the overturned box. “He’s not here.”
“He’s probably found a nice cool spot to spend the night in and sleep.”
“Yeah. Let’s leave this to the morning. We can look for him then. It’ll be easier in daylight.”
The next morning, after getting up, dressing for work, and checking the cut on his chin, Roy went downstairs to the kitchen. There, he found Helen sitting and staring at the kitchen table.
“I found Toby,” she said, raising her head.
Roy took a coffee mug out of a cabinet and noticed that her eyes looked watery.
“You did?” He looked over to the spot Toby and his box normally occupied. The box was there, but empty.
Helen got up, walked over to Roy, and took him by the hand. She led him out of the house and across the backyard. At its far side, she stopped and pointed at a clump of Daylilies. Roy stooped and parted the flowers’ broad leaves. There, almost hidden from view, was Toby. An inward gash ran the length of his shell. Green colored matter had seeped out of it. Toby’s eyes were squeezed shut, their lids bulging outward. A pink colored foam covered his nose and mouth.
As he stood up, Roy shook his head and looked at Helen.
“Roy,” she said, tears in her voice. “I’d like to bury him before you leave for work.”
“I’ll get a shovel.”
Roy walked back across the yard to the shed. He opened its door and sunlight swept in. Stepping inside, Roy stood for a moment and looked around. Everything was in its place. Grasping the garden shovel by the handle, he leaned it against the shed’s wall. Then, taking a rag from a shelf, he began wiping the slimy green smears off his metal yardstick.
About the Author
J L Higgs' short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 30 magazines including Indiana Voice Journal, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal, Rigorous, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He currently lives outside of Boston.
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