[Originally appeared in The St. Petersburg Review]
B E F O R E I was to leave for the war zone, I was given the option to have an experimental collar installed. The collar was designed to discourage beheadings. It was similar to a neck brace that one would wear after suffering whiplash, though it had elements of an Elizabethan dog collar, which bloom like a toilet bowl around a dog’s head to prevent it from licking off ointments and lotions. Having seen a number of beheadings online, I thought this collar made a lot of sense.
The experimental collar was called the Headlock. It tightly ringed the neck then opened outward under the chin. In the back, it rose up at a near vertical angle, similar to the gular segments of a tortoise’s plastron, and fluted slightly to cup the back of the head in the manner of marginal segments that rim a tortoise’s shell. The collar had to be surgically installed—two metal anchors embedded securely into the scapula and one center post fused into the sternum. Intensive electrolysis on the chin, neck and back of the head was highly recommended, to avoid the discomforts of hair. At the push of a button located in the throat area, the collar secreted an aloe-based oil that cooled and soothed the skin under it, so that any itchiness or irritation could be instantly relieved.
I thought this collar made a lot of sense. Dana, my wife thought it was a bit much, saying that it would restrict my ability to turn my head and therefore make me more vulnerable to capture. I tried to explain my position to her, relating the nightmares, the lurid fantasies that I had while jogging, which really brought up my heart rate. I reminded her of our trip to a psychic. It was her first birthday gift for me back when we were dating. The psychic was a middle aged woman with a teenage boy’s moustache. She read my cards, my palm, my eyes, and announced that I had lived many lives—one, incidentally, as a waste water plant operator (hence, my aversion to sewage). Some of those lives, she grimly explained, ended with severe physical abuse and painful executions. This was the reason for my aversion to torture, the psychic told us.
That woman was a fraud, Dana exclaimed, pointing out that the psychic had also predicted we would not be married. Yet here we were, and with a rock band worth of babies on the way.
It was a logically sound argument. The only way to counter was to show her the beheading videos online, which I had bookmarked in a folder I had deceptively titled “turtle sites,” a subject she tired of years ago—a topic that now repulsed her. We watched the victims, how they were just before the bread knife came out of the sleeve. I pointed out the knowing on their bloodless faces. We sat with them, waiting, then felt the hardness of the dark, inescapable hands and the icy bite of the blade, and heard the drowning screams. Two days later I had the metal anchors surgically embedded into my scapulas and sternum. A day after that, I was wearing the collar. Though it was painful at first, and though it made it challenging to sleep, it did provide me with some peace of mind. It endowed me with a feeling of confidence, something like what I felt as a kid, when I took judo for a few weeks.
* * *
B Y the time of my going away party, I had gotten fairly used to the collar. We told most of the guests the true nature of the apparatus, but my wife and I had decided not to divulge its purpose to my mother, who was already extremely upset with the idea of me going to the war zone. She couldn’t understand how I could even consider it, especially with babies on the way. My reason for going was simple: Money. We hadn’t expected quadruplets.
For one thing, we were going to need a Chevy Tahoe.
We needed money and the war zone needed electricians.
We’re going to have lots of babies and it’s not like you can give some away like a bag of apricots, I had told her over the phone.
Well, I certainly wasn’t suggesting that, she said defensively, always so serious. It was all life and death with her. She was against the use of fertility drugs.
Now here she was, bringing it up again in the festive glow of tikki torches, as I worked the grill and the sky feathered up, wet and orange-juicy.
I scraped meat crumbs from the grill.
They are paying a lot of money to people willing to go to the war zone, I said, unbelievable money.
That’s because people are getting killed there all the time.
Not all the time, I argued. The odds are pretty slim. You’re more likely to be bitten by cobra while sitting on the toilet.
You don’t know. You only know what they tell you and they don’t tell it all, she said, once again applying her suspicions of an alliance between the media and government. She was a hippy, my mother, a long time ago in dress and now in spirit. She would never stand during the national anthem at ball games. She hated Dow, the company. She hated companies. My father, who had been dead for nearly ten years, was her still her co-conspirator. They acted as if war was a terrible disease or a child molester. Anyone who wanted it was shit on the shoe of an angel. They simply refused to see the opportunities.
When she showed up at the party, we told her I had whiplash.
Her initial response was one of delight, saying, Well, I suppose this means you’re not going, that you’re going to stay here, where you belong, with your wife who is with child…ren.
I explained that it did not mean that at all, flipping turkey burgers as we talked.
How can you do your job like that? she cried. And to demonstrate her point, she stood in my blind spot and threw uncooked wieners at my head.
You’re wasting food, I said.
Don’t even try to use my own ethics against me, you stupid motherfucker, she shouted.
Maybe she was drunk. It had happened before. She stormed off into the black trees, no doubt intending to pout by the turtle pond. I started after her, but was blocked by my neighbor, Gail the Whale, who wanted to dance. Her husband, Lim, was already dancing with my wife. The boom box was blasting and people, my friends, were gyrating on the patio in the carnival flicker of colored Christmas lights. Their stretched shadows played like a mob of gentle monsters against the stucco wall of my house. But my mother, I said to Gail the Whale. She wouldn’t hear of it, dragging me onto the floor. I did what I could, but the collar was limiting my movements. Loosen up, man, Lim said. You’re so stiff. That got a laugh. I got an even bigger one when I did the Robot in response. We line danced and the collar actually seemed to help.
Then I was hit with a fistful of potato salad.
I turned to face my attacker but my mother, who had returned from her sulk, stayed in my blind spot, orbiting outside of my periphery like the dark side of the moon. I took another hit to the ear and managed to spin the opposite way and grab her arm, knocking the bowl of potato salad to the ground. What are you doing, mother? I yelled. The salad in my ear forced me to really hear myself.
The dancing was doused. Someone shut the music off.
She tried to tear away her arm, staring at me with contempt. She was a black belt but, in her drunken state, couldn’t pull off any fancy escape maneuvers.
I gave her a good shake. What the hell are you doing, you crazy psycho?
Woody! my wife said.
You don’t deserve that name! my mother screeched. Don’t call him that!
They had named me after Woody Guthrie, a hippy singer who loved migrant workers. My mother had more to say: You’re nothing but a profiteer! How did we raise a war profiteer, Clyde? She was talking to my dead father now, looking heavenward where surely he must have taken up post-life residence. There was potato salad down the collar. I was digging after it when my mother threw herself at me, sobbing, pounding at my chest and clawing at my eyes, but now lovingly. You kids, she blubbered, I hate what you’ve become—a bunch of soulless husks. Heads up your asses, buying into the media lullaby. Don’t you see it’s a lullaby? Can’t you see it?
Wow, I thought. Definitely drunk and maybe on dope, too. It was so irritating. Ruining the party vibe with one of her generational comparison rants that I had been hearing all my life. After all, if everything was so screwed up, wasn’t it her generation that let it get that way? Why do we have to not only apologize for their orgy but also sleep in their wet spot? At any rate, she seemed to have gotten it out of her system with her outburst. She threw her arms around me, wailing. I’m sorry, she said. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing! And, when she tried to bury her face into my neck, she chipped her front tooth on the Kevlar.
Fortunately, Lim is a dentist. He took her into the house and had a look.
My friends and I, my wife, everyone, we could only shrug. Just the emotion of it all, we told each other. Her son is going to the war zone and her daughter-in-law is having quadruplets. People’s heads are being sawed off online with bread knives. Plus, she’s drunk and probably high on weed, a nasty old habit that she and my dad shared.
I apologized to everyone personally for my mother’s behavior. I regretted that the party came to an end on such a negative note, and acknowledged that there was no way to get things back on track. We all agreed that a distraught mother, even a hippy one, is guaranteed buzz-kill. We said our goodbyes, standing at the end of our front yard path where we could say something personal to each and every guest as they filed by. They touched or nodded at my wife’s belly, saying sweet things to the little street gang that lived in there. They asked me about my turtles—who is going to take care of them for me? The neighbor kids had volunteered, I explained. I can’t keep them away. If you can’t beat them, hire them. Take care of yourself, was their general message to me. Stay safe. And my message to them was a promise to do just that. When I come back, I assured them, we’ll have another party—a much bigger one. A lot bigger since, by then, my little platoon of children will have marched into the light of day.
* * *
D A N A and I went in to check on my mother. Lim had given her some painkillers and she was out cold in the nursery we had prepared for our litter. She was sleeping in a sitting position, occupying the special four-baby nursing chair (donated by the local TV station) in all her slumped-over milklessness. I pushed back her upper lip to a snarl and looked at the chipped tooth. A small was triangle was missing from the bottom of her top right front tooth and a crack ran vertically upward, up under the gum line. Looks like the Liberty Bell, I said.
Did you wash your hands? Lim asked. Probably should if you’re going to handle her lip that way.
I thought about that missing little triangle of tooth and how it was now like a little shark’s tooth, out there somewhere in the world—or maybe she had swallowed it. Its absence left a little notch and it occurred to me that my mother could now probably remove carpenter nails with her tooth, which was now slightly forked like the claw end of a hammer. This thought led me to an image of her removing the nails from a birdhouse, which led me to a memory my father’s obscenely simple casket. I thought of my mother pulling nails from my father’s cheap casket with her teeth.
Before Lim had left, he had mentioned that my mother’s gums, in the area immediately above the tooth, were bruised and she would probably require a pulpectomy—what’s commonly referred to as a root canal, though the root canal is the area to be addressed not the name of a procedure. Any little fissure in a tooth, he explained, would invite in bacteria which could lead to a jaw bone infection. First though, the infection would result in an abscess and possibly a fistula, which was basically a channel created by the pressure of the accumulating pus. It finds its own way out, makes its own opening.
Wow. I thought about someone with blocked vas deferens. Would the sperm create a fistula? That would be pretty wild to have sperm weeping out a hole in your thigh. I was thankful that my problem—our problem—had nothing to do with blocked vas deferens.
While she’s getting the root canal, she might as well have the tooth capped, Lim recommended.
Wow, I said. Poor old lady. I felt badly, but I couldn’t help remind myself that it was all her own doing. What was she thinking, anyway? It was a curious injury. It occurred to me that, had I not been wearing the Headlock collar, her tooth may have penetrated my neck. It’s entirely possible that she could have slashed my jugular. She loved gays, my porcupine mother, which was strange because none of her kids were gay. She really deeply loved gays with AIDS and brain-dead hippies, it seemed to us when we looked at how she spent her time, holding them against her soft belly, giving the rest of us quills. Would I leave her alone with the babies? Maybe only until they could talk, or until they could clearly understand human language. Then she would have to be watched so that she didn’t pass on her unhappiness in the things she says. She can be with them, I might have to say, but only after taking a vow of silence.
* * *
A F T E R Lim left we decided to go for walk instead of cleaning up after the party. We went out the back door, across the patio, and down through the trees. The dark woods crowded around us. Fireflies drifted by, flaring up like bits of blown-on charcoal. Ahead through the trees, the pond was a slick, dark place pulling down what light it could from the sky. We held hands and sat on a bench overlooking the obsidian smear. Dana took my hand at put it on her belly, which was really starting to expand. I held it there, hoping to feel those pups squirming around, maybe playing a round of tennis doubles. Turns out they were well into a game of two-on-two hoops. I lean over and peeped in through her navel so I could call the game. It was skins versus skins, so it was tough to tell them apart. They’re all boys, so that didn’t help. And bald. Because of this, it was hard to tell who won and who lost. Which means they’re all winners, Dana said.
And losers, I added. Dana frowned. She insisted on positive thinking, whereas I was more comfortable with the yin-yang thing. That’s what happens when you have hippy parents—you inherit some of the craziness.
To change the subject, I patted the bench and gave Dana a wink. I had built the bench for turtlewatching and it was on this bench that the q-lets were conceived one night, nearly five months earlier, from sexing in a supposedly ineffective sitting position after Dana had been so completely moved by one of my responses. It was a role playing game we had started with soon after I came up with the idea of working in the war zone so we could afford a baby, back when we were trying to get pregnant. The sex had become pretty mechanical and we were looking for ways to keep it interesting. The game always started with Dana grabbing a fist full of hair and pulling my head back. Using an insurgent’s accent, she would whisper, “Tell me why it is that I should not kill you, American scum!”
My responses at first were typical, obvious, nothing life-sparing: I meant them no harm. I was just trying to make a living. I had no feelings of animosity toward them and I wished them well. It was nothing personal. I mean, I didn’t even know them and I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. If they were to let me go, I would leave the country and not tell anyone anything that might give away their position. I would say they were decent, desperate people and that they fed me well and provided clean towels, even if they hadn’t. I would also tell them that I’m a simple man, who just wants to live my life in peace. I would them about my turtles and my interest in terrapins, my collection. I would tell them that some humans are turtles, like myself—only wanting to live inside a snugly fitted home; to move slowly through life so as to savor it all; to respond to threats and offenses passively, simply by pulling in my arms and legs, my head, to wait out the danger. I would convince them of my turtle outlook, my personal philosophy inspired by a creature from which we can all learn so much. I would show them pictures of Fickle Frank, Sloopy, Wetback (because his back was always wet!), Lil’ Lesbo, Michelle, all the gang at the pond.
That night, the night we conceived the kids, I was telling the insurgent who was my wife about my turtles this way when I saw the hurt in her eyes—the hurt at having to talk about turtles. I had taken advantage of the game, using her assumed identity to talk about something she had forbidden me to talk about. I was losing this insurgent. It wasn’t looking good. At any minute, the bread knife could emerge from under the insurgent’s blouse. I thought of something new to tell the insurgent. It was the thing I should have said all along. It was the thing, the only thing that could possibly save me: instead of talking about my turtles, I told the insurgent about my sweet, wonderful wife and her desire for a family, and my failure to inseminate her. Who wouldn’t be moved by the situation? It was a universal hardship, though all the more moving when you knew my wife—the kindest, most loving person in the world. A person who would make a really great mom, insurgent. A super terrific mom!
As I was saying this, I felt the insurgent loosen her grip on my hair and I knew I was on to something. She grew up an only child, I told the insurgent. A sweet, lonely kid, playing alone in a small backyard. Her parents both worked so she spent a lot of time on a tire swing, just swinging, watching the fruit fall from the tree.
Now the insurgent was tearing up a little.
I mentioned to the insurgent that the child had an unfortunate mole that she wished with all her might would dry up.
The insurgent’s hand went to the corner of her lip, where there was a mole.
I went on. This little girl, insurgent, grew up to be a quietly beautiful teenaged girl who, in her desperation for love and approval, tried out for cheerleader but didn’t make it and had to settle for drill team, which was also known as the “dog squad”. She dated a lot of guys who turned out to be jerks. They were obsessed with her breasts, which were big, especially back when her body was so small. Her breasts, insurgent, were famous at her school. Boys came around and that’s all they wanted: to touch them, to lick and suck them, to squeeze them and rub and twist the nipples like the knobs on an Etch-A-Sketch.
The insurgent sobbed at that, releasing my hair. But I had to go on. It had to be an unconditional surrender: I would settle for nothing less than a car ride back to the Embassy.
The girl went to college and, I told the insurgent, at her parents’ insistence, took a degree in Liberal Studies, earning a teaching credential, even though she was much more interested in Urban Studies and Planning. There she dated more jerks, especially a guy named Mark Jenkins who didn’t respect her tastes, taking her to a lot of action movies and Chinese buffets, even though she had explained that Chinese was too greasy for her stomach. She lost her virginity to some frat guy just to hurt Mark Jenkins, which is no way to start your life as a sexually active adult. And there was no taking it back. When your virginity is gone, it’s gone forever. For that reason, you should only give it to someone very special, and for the right reasons.
The insurgent looked up, brow furrowed. I had gone too far, it seemed. An old argument had made a cameo appearance and that was wrong. I backed off. My wife, I told the insurgent, is that girl I’ve been telling you about. A great teacher, a good cook, a fine companion. A woman who married me, a pretty fantastic guy, despite some motility issues. A woman who bought a house with me and allowed me to have study-slash-office and a pond, so long as it was away from the house so that mosquitoes wouldn’t be a problem, even though I explained that terrapins love mosquito larvae. A woman who was extremely happy until her sister had a baby and she went to visit the baby. When she came back, she said, everywhere I look I see babies. She saw them on TV, in both the ads and the shows. They were in cars that drove by, they were in shopping carts and strapped on to both men and women on the jogging trails. She is a woman without a baby in a baby-crazy culture, I told the insurgent. Now it’s all she thinks about and her husband, me, a great guy otherwise, can’t give her one without the use of fertility drugs. She has the nursery all planned out and names for both genders. She goes on a lot of parenting websites and lurks on the message boards—just lurking, lurking. Never posting on her own. She says she’s incomplete without a baby. She says it’s like living with half a heart. She’s a beautiful, wonderful woman who deserves anything she wants and I will die trying to give it to her, insurgent.
At that point, now nearly five months ago, the insurgent looked me in the eyes. We stared at each other as owls hooted nearby. The insurgent’s eyes were wet with tears behind her big glasses. I was smiling, knowing I had a good chance of being released, that if I played my cards right it would be all over soon.
The insurgent leaned forward and kissed me on the mouth, on the neck. The insurgent undid my pants and took me out of my new plaid boxer shorts that the doctors recommended I wear. The insurgent pushed me back and straddled me, pulling her panties aside. The insurgent was very wet! The insurgent was so turned on! The insurgent started sliding and grinding, all the while kissing my eyes, chewing lightly at my mouth. This was an intense insurgent, a super horny insurgent! An unstoppable insurgent!
To keep myself from submitting to her demands, I imagined the ride in the car to the Embassy, seeing the streets teaming with people who don’t know me or care about my fate. I envisioned the back of the driver’s head, his hairy earlobes, as he steers through the jammed streets. I see the Embassy in the distance. The driver pulls to the side of the street. You can exit the car here, he says. You’ll have to walk yourself the rest of the way to the Embassy. I understand. No problem, I say. Thanks for everything. I open the door and walk quickly through the street, passing venders and shops, men playing cards, drinking tea. There are lots of flies and vulgar cuts of meat.
Just as I get to the Embassy door, I feel freedom rising but I hold it off until I push through the Embassy entry way and I shout, I AM FREE!
* * *
N O W the bench bore the fruit of that night, supporting with its back my wife and the four future people inside her, plus me and my Kevlar collar, which wasn’t as light as it looked. I felt her grip tighten around my hand. She said, Is there no other way, Woody?
Please, I said. It’s all in motion. I knocked on the collar.
She started with if anything should happen to you.
What could happen?
A lot worse things.
You don’t know because you don’t cook, she said cryptically.
I didn’t want to talk about it. Let’s go to the pond, I suggested. I want to say bye to the gang.
Don’t. All this crying. You’ll see.
There are so many nice people who want white babies, she said. I just saw a show about it on Oprah.
Boy, I wish Oprah would give us a Chevy Tahoe.
She tends to give Pontiacs.
We held hands in the woods on the bench where we conceived quadruplets. I should have stayed right there. I should be sitting there to this day, with my wife, refusing to let the future itself happen. It was a moment you could tolerate for an eternity.
After a while, my wife told me to go say my goodbyes to the turtles. Go do it alone, she said. You should have your privacy. Besides, she explained that she was feeling very heavy and worried that she would slip on the steep bank and fall into the black water. The dancing had taken a toll on her legs. I stood and told her to wait there. It won’t take long and we’ll walk back up to the house together.
I walked down the trail to the water. My eyes had adjusted and I was able to pick my way down the bank. I could see the dark form of my reflection on the glassy, still water. The water looked thick and gooey. The lily pads formed a pattern of what appeared to be holes in the slick surface. I made my way around to the Shellback Inn. This was a simple structure I had created on the end of the pond, a low lean-to over the mud that the turtles used as a nightly shelter. It had a built in black light and webcam so I could check in on them from my office. Now I intended to watch them from the war zone, if given internet access and time. I would see if they were being cared for by the neighbor boys that I had deputized as surrogate guardians.
I lifted the top of the Shellback, which I had built on hinges so I could access the terrapins without kneeling on the damp ground. There they were, dutifully clumped, half burrowed in the black mud. I rested my hand on each of their backs, conveying my simple message through my pulse, which was this: I am alive and you are alive at the same time and this is what binds us. They were safe, yet vulnerable. Blood filled stones. Armored, prehistoric, yes, but so absolutely dependent on order in the world—an order that had persisted well enough for millions of years, but who knows? I sat on the edge of the structure and watched them do nothing for a while. In such a vacuum of expression the slightest gesture is ballet. I could hear Dana sniffling up in the darkness, still crying a little bit. It rattled me. I knew I would recall it later, the sound of her weeping in the dark woods. My mother unconscious in the nursing chair with a chipped tooth. War: I shivered. An unsettling hole was opening up before me, a jagged mouth in the universe. Even then I could feel myself falling into to it. At the very least, it was good to have the collar at my throat. But even better, I thought, would be skin made of bone.