On the Island
by Denis J. Underwood
This morning, a ninety degree July morning, dew across the fields is brilliant with sun. It’s 7:00 a.m. and Elias lifts a beer to his lips. He glances at Shane who veers off the pavement to follow a narrow gravel road. The rusted Bronco bucks over each rut and a garbage can clangs against the rear window. Elias knows the blood will come; there’s no avoiding it.
At their first stop, a sinkhole of cow piss and manure alongside a barn, Shane brings a small turtle to hand. Tossing it back in, he claims this is some of the best water in Perry County.
They climb into the Bronco and drive to a creek in a picturesque valley straight out of a Grant Wood lithograph.
“Ass up jug! See it moving?” Shane says, sauntering down the embankment. A battered anti-freeze container is lodged against a rock, cap end in the water. Elias follows Shane who takes hold of the jug, pulls, and wraps the line around his hand. The line is taut as he struggles against what’s hooked on the end. There’s a sharp little sound and the line vanishes in the water. Shane heaves the anti-freeze container toward the Bronco. “Sometimes you have to feel for them,” he says.
At first, the way Shane says it, Elias thinks he is referring to how he feels sorry for killing the turtles. But, of course, he is not.
Shane shuttles a beer to his mouth, chugs it down and drops the can onto the grass. “Old timers talk about going in and feeling for them. I figured they were full of shit until I saw nubs where fingers should be.” Without hesitation, he steps into the creek. The water climbs to his waist.
“You crazy?” Elias says.
Plumes of muck roil around Shane as he probes the water. His head bumps against the bank and mud a shade lighter than his black hair marks his forehead.
“Got something,” he shouts, his shoulders breaking through the surface. Water flows off what looks like a boulder. Claws flail beyond the shell and the head hisses. Shane holds the animal near the tail, away from its formidable jaws. He flips the snapping turtle up on the bank and the shell slaps against the mud.
Elias retreats and then stops himself. A display of fear will only garner ridicule. Shane doesn’t seem to notice. “That thing’ll take your hand off,” Elias says.
Shane works his way out of the creek, kicking his legs to wash the mud from his Levis. “We’ve got more jugs to check,” he says.
Elias approaches the turtle for a better look. The end of the line dangles from its mouth. The hook is deep in the gullet or stomach.
Shane strides to the Bronco and returns, a beer glued to his lips. For how much he drinks, he’s still in good shape. Senior year at Ohio University, he was invited to try out for the Cincinnati Reds. When he didn’t make the cut, he went to work for a landscaper and never put to use the Phys Ed degree he received. There was a tour of duty in the army Elias has never heard a word about.
Now Shane’s thirty-five, owns his own truck, mowers and tools. He cuts lawns, plants shrubs and trims trees, mostly for people from Cincinnati and Columbus who own summer homes on Buckeye Lake. He lives in a run-down farm house with a couple of guys, trapping animals to sell the pelts and eat the meat. They shoot skeet off the front porch.
“D’you still like Chicago?” Shane asks. This change of subject is expected. Elias knows Shane will not dwell on what he has just done.
“Sure. You and Clay should visit sometime.”
“Naw. Too many people in one place for me.”
“Broaden your horizons a bit.”
“Illinois doesn’t interest me. Only other state I’m fixin’ to see is Alaska.”
Elias would never say it, but he’s disappointed that Clay and Shane haven’t come to Chicago. For such an occasion, he would rent a limo. Take them to the top of the Hancock for drinks. Show them Lake Michigan rimmed by lights that reach as far as you can see.
Elias has come to Somerset, Ohio, the hometown of Civil War general Philip Sheridan. Elias’s dad grew up in the Sheridan home, a Gothic Revival built on a hill at the outskirts of town. Summers and holidays, Elias would live a little wild and out of control with his cousin Clay, and Clay’s friends who were four or five years older than Elias. They took perverse pleasure in introducing the “city boy” to shooting, trapping, beer drinking, tobacco chewing, and embarrassment in front of girls. For a few weeks each year they were the older brothers he never had. This past spring, Clay insisted Elias return for the turtle hunt and fry. Elias hasn’t been on the island for almost ten years—since the summer after graduating from college. Last time he saw the blood, he had to sit down and look away. He swallows hard now, like he did when the bile burned the back of his throat.
Shane maneuvers a large burlap sack around the turtle. Fungus hangs off the shell and the stench is like raw chicken well past the expiration date. The hissing and snapping is incessant. “Twenty pounds of meat there,” Shane says. “If you’re not gonna catch or kill them, you have to haul them to the truck.”
Elias considers the bag and the many times he went hunting with Shane over the years—Shane doing all the shooting and him all the carrying. “Fine,” he says, thinking that some things never change.
“Throw it over your shoulder and let it rest on your back,” Shane says.
Before taking hold of the bag, Elias glances up knowingly.
“Just kidding. Clay did that once. Damned thing bit through burlap and denim. He took off running, screaming, ‘Get it off!’ Three guys held him down while I tore it away. Turtle took a chunk of his ass.”
“I’m not that stupid,” Elias says.
“Like hell you’re not.”
Elias lifts the bag and strains to keep it clear of his body.
* * *
Elias hears the turtle clawing at the garbage can. Beyond the open window, the cornfields rush by in a blur of colors.
“We can’t show up with only one,” Shane says. It looks as if he’s just swallowed a plug of tobacco.
Elias lost count of how many beers Shane has consumed. Five or six? “Hey, you remember the time I beat your ass?” he says.
While steering, Shane switches his beer from one hand to the other. “Naw,” he says.
“I pinned you flat on your back.” Elias is still lean, thirty pounds lighter than Shane, just like he was when they were younger. He’s not sure what got into him or where he found the strength. He knows he got lucky.
“If that happened—and I’m not saying it did—I must’ve been sick. Near death.”
“No. You lost to a city boy, fair and square. You didn’t show your face for days.” Elias considers this victory a watershed moment in his life. The one and only time he ever triumphed in a physical battle.
“Might’ve been around the time that hard shell got me—one of them Jap beetles.”
“What?” Elias knows this story well. He’s been waiting years to hear it again.
“Felt it go in my right ear hole. The tractor was still rolling when I jumped off. I got hold of a stick and jammed it in.”
“You put a fucking stick in your ear?”
“And . . .”
“The thing kept burrowing—like it wasn’t gonna stop until it reached my brain. Blood started running down my neck.” Shane gulps the beer. “Doc had to drown it and flush out each piece. I couldn’t hear anything in that ear for weeks.”
“What the hell does that have to do with me pinning you?” Elias says through a wide grin. Shane trots this story out judiciously, using it as an excuse for his rare failings. He once blamed his poor tryout with the Reds on the hard shell.
“Well, you must have come along and jumped me when I was disoriented and deaf. That’s the only time I would have been in such a condition that you could take me.”
“Good one,” Elias says.
Shane crushes the can and drops it on the floorboard. Elias hands over another.
* * *
The boathouse looks the same as Elias remembers, only much smaller. Back in the day, Doc’s well-kept boathouse and lot stood out among the surrounding shacks. Now McMansions and their accompanying structures dwarf everything.
On the dock, Elias and Shane wait for someone to come over from the island. Shane’s tent, some blankets and a sleeping bag are stacked on the cooler that was refreshed in town with ice and beer after all the jugs were retrieved. Four turtles hiss away in the garbage can.
Shane turns the signal light on and off that’s mounted on the boathouse roof. “They’re probably drunk already. Not paying attention,” he says.
“I can’t believe how much everything has changed.” Elias gazes at speed boats and WaveRunners swarming in the open water beyond the island.
“This is our last stronghold here.” Shane spits a stream of tobacco. It hits the water and blends in. “These assholes can’t stand that we’re still around.”
A bottle rocket whistles up from the island, goes silent, and then pops above a house across the channel. Elias marvels at the massive homes dominating the lakefront. Even the backwater channels, once littered with run down trailers and the carcasses of abandoned cars, have been cleaned up and transformed.
Driving in, Elias couldn’t help but notice all the late model SUVs snaking along Route 13 to Buckeye Lake. Before this colonization, the nicest vehicle would have been an American-made 4×4 pick-up with oversized wheels and a rack of spotlights on the roof.
“Jesus, how long you here for?” Shane asks, pointing at Elias’s suitcase. “A month?”
“Not gonna run short of clothes, are ya?”
Elias doesn’t answer. He thinks about how foolish he’ll look wheeling the bag on the island.
“Finally,” Shane says.
A boat moves slowly toward them, following a clearing through the lily pads that cover the small bay like a hide. Clay sits behind the wheel, a bright red Ohio State visor shading his eyes.
The front of the boat glances off the dock and Elias grabs the line, wrapping it around a post.
“Damn, that’s a monster,” Clay says leaning over the garbage can. “How long you two been waiting here?”
“Twenty minutes,” Elias says.
“Only person who uses that signal light anymore is Shane. He’s what you call a holdout. I figured you’d call.”
“Don’t have my phone.” Elias left it on the kitchen counter at home, hoping that doing so would force him to relax and not constantly check the status of contracts he needs to close for the quarter. “Last time I was here, I couldn’t get a signal.”
“Well, it’s civilized now. Can’t you tell?”
They load the boat and shove off.
“Where’d you get the big one?” Clay asks, throttling up the motor. The wake ripples the lilies.
“Shane jumped in and felt for it.” Elias feels good relaying a tale that will trigger admiration and become local lore. Shane adds nothing; it would be beneath him. If anything, he looks embarrassed as he rests his head on the seatback.
Clay cuts off the motor and the boat glides toward shore. Beyond the dock a massive mound of dirt runs the length of the island.
“What’s up with the Great Wall of China?” Elias asks.
“Doc doesn’t want the folks across the way looking in on him and he doesn’t want to see them,” Clay says. “He had the guys dredging the channel dump the mud here.”
Clay grabs the cooler; Elias rolls his bag over wood planks and then onto land. They leave Shane on the boat with the turtles.
The simple two-story house has never been much to look at. Mounted over the entryway, turtle shells the size of sewer covers cast shadows on the peeling white paint. Elias estimates the island could accommodate four of the new homes. There isn’t a more desirable spot on the lake. “This land must be worth a fortune now,” he says.
“Sure. But Doc doesn’t need the money.” Clay points across the channel. “The guy who lives there called Doc a few years back. Talked big dollars. Doc says he loves hearing the disappointment in their voices. How they act as if they’ve never been told ‘no’ before, especially by some hillbilly doctor. Now, every chance he gets, that guy makes a stink about us hunting here, about how we need to be members of their club. Last spring, opening day, he had the balls to come out and clap and blow a whistle to keep the ducks from coming in. Shane about shot the bastard.”
Elias can’t help but be impressed by the neighbor, someone who stares down men with shotguns, men who could be mistaken for outlier militia members. He is familiar with this kind of person and sits next to some of them in a maze of cubicles. He competes with them for business. They get what they want and always expect it to be that way.
* * *
The turtles are spaced a few feet apart on the grass, their legs and heads snug inside the shells. Shane holds a two by four just off the ground in front of the big one and the head shoots out, clamping on with a snap. Shane eases the head from the shell. A flash follows his right arm down. The blade thumps into the earth and the head stays with the wood. From the remaining stump of neck, blood spurts in long strings over the grass.
“Time to blow him up,” Shane says, jamming the nozzle of a hose into the neck hole. He squeezes, sealing skin against metal. The legs and tail grow rigid and then water sprays from Shane’s fist. “That loosens it all up in there.”
Elias stares at the head on the board. The black eyes are fixed on something eternally interesting in the grass. He wonders if the head will remain there until it’s pried off.
Shane removes the nozzle and slices at a leg until he has it off. He pulls out the insides through the hole and drops them on the ground. One of Doc’s granddaughters wanders over. “Keep clear of the head, it’ll still bite,” Shane says. The girl squats to examine the beating heart as it glistens in the sun. Shane continues hacking and scraping; meat accumulates in a large, clear bag.
Shane turns toward Elias and says, “You’re handling the next one, right?”
Elias shakes his head. This time the blood and the whole mess only caused him to cringe. He feels great relief that there’s no need to puke and that his legs aren’t shaking. A sense of satisfaction blooms within him.
“Put this on ice, then.”
Elias snatches the bag and wanders to the cooler. He hears a sound, like the crack of a bat, and wheels around to see Shane posing as if he’s just hit a grand slam. Far out in the bay, the head splashes down.
With the empty board in one hand and the machete in the other, Shane walks toward another turtle.
Elias studies the people near the house—a much smaller group than the last time when tents crowded the island and so many folks milled about, drinking beer and tossing horseshoes. Clay is by one of the grills, hotdog in hand, watching Shane. Others are laughing and gnawing on ears of corn.
A feeling comes over Elias. Something familiar that he hasn’t experienced in a long while: the feeling of being an outsider. To some extent, he’s always been one here. Somehow he’s still accepted even though he’s got more in common with the latest wave of colonizers than the locals. How long until Clay, Shane and the whole lot of them are dislodged from here? The turtles, too. He’s pretty sure he’ll never set foot on the island again. Nothing stays the same, he thinks. Everyone has a price. It’ll be Doc who sells or Doc’s family once he’s gone.
Elias wants to stop thinking of such things, things that aren’t easily reconciled or understood. He wonders if he can now do what he has never done before; he has another opportunity to prove himself.
“Hold on,” he calls to Shane.
A few feet from where Shane’s shadow ends, Elias stands over the turtle. The machete weighs heavy in his hand.