My child, seeing your face brings me such relief. Follow behind my chair lift, let your grandmother show you where Fred lives. Fred the tortoise has lived in the attic since your father was in third grade; Fred was his first pet. Now your grandpa had an affinity for that wrinkled beast, even more so than your father. He refused to put Fred up for adoption when your dad moved out to start his own family in Philadelphia. Fred’s still up there fisting over the hardwood, peering around corners in search of lettuce with his dusty face.
See that baby gate walling off the attic? We propped it up so the old dinosaur doesn’t tumble down the slanted stairs. Take this carrot, yes, my grandchild, and fling it over. Good. Wait a moment. Do you hear him? Those fat thumps just above us? I haven’t seen him for months, now, because the chair lift’s rail doesn’t extend to the attic, but I hear him bumping, coughing, wheezing. Don’t mind the smell, some bits end up wasting away up there. Once a day I throw Fred a meal. I call it Attic Stew.
Tortoises can live for a century; did you know? When your grandpa turned ninety he would joke, “I think Fred’s going to win!” They would stroll to the park together, even as weeds snaked over the sidewalks, when gaunt youngsters began to pose like action figures on the corners with big coats hanging lifelessly from their shoulders. In a nicer town, people would’ve adored grandpa, but here, nobody cared. The houses huddle closer and closer but nobody checks up on each other.
One day—I think it was a sweltering summer Saturday—Fred came home with red pits in his neck and legs. Grandpa had strolled over to the potholed basketball court and some kids had used Fred for target practice. Grandpa dug copper BBs out of Fred like apple seeds. I’ve never seen him so angry. He swore to leave Fred in the attic where no one could hurt him. He wanted you, his grandchild, to meet Fred someday—yet the next morning, out he went, towing the tortoise.
That was the first omen. Next he failed to pay the phone bill. Then the car pulled in without gas. He grew irritable, peevishly certain that I was playing jokes on him all day. The car rusted, the phone lines toppled, and the neighbors never knocked. I couldn’t call your father, and your grandpa shredded the stamps, snarling about a conspiracy to “ship him off in a box.” Yet he always remembered to hike upstairs for Fred. I faced accusations of trying to starve the reptile as my demented husband forgot that my legs don’t move. All the while, I could hear Fred’s long nails scraping, his shell belly wearing thin against the floors.
I never got the word that you all moved to Texas. I assume your father tried to reach me. I missed you all terribly. Seven days a week, I hunched by the window, praying for a mailman to venture to my slot, wondering why you hadn’t visited. I pounded on the glass when the newspaper landed in my driveway, joining the weekly platoon. Grandpa had promised to build me a ramp out the front door…this is why I am so glad to see you, my child. The dementia rendered grandpa nonverbal; my pleas were met with vicious barks and cackles. He crawled to the attic one morning, hurdled that baby gate, and never came back down.
So you must help me, love, do your grandma a favor. You understand. I screamed, I cried, I waved out the window. I can’t climb the attic stairs. No neighbors care. I wake in lakes of sweat from nightmares of Fred’s shell-pink mouth. Scratchy whispers send me starting from the sheets, my hallway trim scarred each dawn. Someone’s scuttling around up there. I pray it’s only rotting food making that reeking stink. What I’m trying to tell you, grandchild, is that when I hurl carrots and cabbage and ground beef into the attic, I don’t know who is eating it. Could you just run up and check for me?
James Cato has worked at the Philadelphia Zoo and has just completed a novel with his childhood friend. Look for him in Montana Mouthful, Coffin Bell, Penultimate Peanut Magazine, Chrome Baby, and Brilliant Flash Fiction.