Bead the Turtle Hangs on the Wall

My first apartment had a little divot in the wall, where a piece of the plaster was carved out, easily, like it was a chunk of room-temp cheese. The place was lived in by a trio of men before me, who liked smoking cigarettes so much that the walls had turned a muddy yellow. I knew there were three of them, because sometimes I’d find clumps of hair stuck deep in the bathroom carpet: colored red, blonde, and black. There was a painting glued to the kitchen floor, face-up, of a ship that was sinking in the waves. The trio had a tendency to collect art and display it, so when you thought about it – the landlord had tried to explain – it wasn’t that odd, not really. Eventually, I used the painting as a catch-all for the trinkets that I’d find in the apartment: a metal keychain, a note of thanks, a wrinkled scarf. It was a game I played, trying to piece together the history of this place.

Dad moved in with me five months after Mom took off her wedding ring and started fucking the 28-year-old that worked at the gas station down the street. He was skinny and had an eyebrow ring that looked infected. Dad brought one suitcase, twelve pairs of socks, and a shellacked turtle – a fixture of my childhood that I had named Bead. He hung Bead the Turtle above the stove. Everytime I cooked, I felt layers of Bead’s shellac melting off, dripping into my food; it was a cycle that I was worried would eventually kill me. Dad didn’t seem to mind much.


One Wednesday, we go fishing in the Broken Lake, nicknamed as such because it is where a dead deer was found once, belly-up, his leg broken, after bouts of rain so heavy that the grocery had flooded. It was covered in the local paper and the clam shop north of the lake had to shut down for a week, on account of fears over deer-infested-waters. The boat is aluminum and striped with dirt. It takes 23 minutes for the electric motor to start to purr. We stop at a clump of wooded trees; they are all ramrod straight with shedding bark, looking like wallpaper that’s begun to rip. Dad says this is where the brown trout live. He likes to eat them with lemon and hot sauce.

The boat sways. It is cloudy today; I can already feel my socks dampen. Sitting face to face with Dad, it is easy to believe that he has been crying. The mist and fog hang onto his eyelashes, which are so long that I wonder if they grew since the last time we sat close like this, when we were in the kitchen and I had finally told him I was moving out-of-state for college. A speedboat passes by, rippling the waves so hard that my body moves side to side.

“Yesterday I fell backwards into the toilet.” I say lightly, breaking the silence. My hand grips the side of the boat. “I guess I forgot to put the seat down and I just went right in.” I open up our tub of bait. The smell makes my nose crinkle.

“Did you hit the water?” Dad smiles to himself, but without his teeth.

I nod. “So hard I think I have a bruise.”

I cast my line into the lake. Dad follows soon after. My hands are exposed, cold. I shiver, thinking about my gloves that I’d forgotten in the front seat of Dad’s pick-up. Dad stares at the water. He wears a knitted beanie, the color red like blood. It makes him look pasty.

“It’s cold today.” I comment.

“Yeah.” He doesn’t look up.

A second passes, maybe three. “I couldn’t find my usual fishing shirt.”

“Oh. I ran the laundry this morning. It’s all still in the washer. Maybe it’s there?”

“Oh. Yeah. Probably.” I itch my nose, loosening my grip on the line.

“Sorry, I should’ve told you.”

“No, it’s okay. It’s just that I usually do the laundry on Sundays.” A heavy wind blows by, shaking the boat slightly. I lean forward and plant my feet.

Dad tugs his beanie lower, over his eyebrows. “Don’t worry. I won’t be with you long enough to change all your routines.”

“What?” I breathe out. A bird flies close to us. I can smell its feathers.

“I’ll be out soon. I’m thinking about going back.”

“Back where?”

“You know where.” At this, he licks his lips; they are chapped and bleeding at the edges. His tongue darts forward, unsure.

My voice sounds crumbly, as if I’m made of dirt. “Why would you go back to her?”

“I’ve read her diary before. Her emails too.” He pauses, pulling at his mustache with his left hand. “I knew long before this happened, what she was doing.”

“So why did you move out? Now?”

“I don’t know. I guess I missed you.”

There is a silence. I try to clear my throat but find it smooth. I look up at him then, at his blue-trimmed glasses, at his scuffed boots, at his ringless finger. I feel my skin begin to rise.

“She’s a good person,” he sighs. He can barely get the words out.

Before I can say something, the line starts pulling in my slacked grip. I almost let the whole thing go, but I manage to grab it in time. I reel the fish in and it flops against the aluminum. It is a brown trout. Smiling, sweat dribbling across my forehead, I turn to Dad. He gives me an almost-smile, coughs, then promptly leans over the boat and vomits. The smell of barf surrounds us.


A month later, I am at my parent’s. Bead the Turtle is there, hanging above the stairs. We have dinner and it is nice, cordial. I go to the bathroom in my old room, because the guest one had a leak last month. The floors are still damp from where the pipe burst. While I’m standing upright, peeing, I find myself staring at a framed picture on the wall. It is from the 2000s, all of us at the Grand Canyon. My hair is down to my shoulders, under a patched cap. There’s a bruise on my left cheek, from where Randi, the first chair violin, hit me with her bow during orchestra period. She didn’t like it when I breathed too loudly. Mom and Dad smile on either side of me. They look old, withered, even back then.

As I zip my jeans back up, I catch a glimpse of black: what looks like a paper, sticking out behind the frame. I inch it to the right with my nail, until it falls forward and I can gather it in my hands. I have to blink four times before I can understand what I am seeing. It is a glossy photo of Mom and the gas-station-boy; they are sitting in a dark booth, with his hands on her thigh. She is wearing a dress I’ve never seen before. I take the frame off the wall and more photos fall, a small bracelet too. After a moment, I crease what I can into fours and pocket them. It feels as though there’s a rock inside my jacket.

Over dessert, Dad slips me a check for next month’s rent. I take it, even though I don’t need it. I offer to wash the dishes and Mom retreats to her room, holding a warm washcloth to her head and blaming a migraine. I start, the suds up to my elbows. Above the rush of water, I can just make out the sounds of Dad’s padded slippers as he makes his way into the den.

When the TV starts talking, I turn off the water and shake my hands dry. There’s a green blender that sits by the window. My arms tremble, slightly, as I pull it forward. I place the photos in and turn the blender on. I can hear my own breath, loud and hot, as I watch the blades scratch the ink into dust.

It is cold when I return to my apartment. I sit down and finally try to pry the painting from the floor. It comes off easy, whole, the dust scattering across the room, like ants from a fire.


Billie Chang is a Chinese-American writer living in Los Angeles. You can find her published work in The Racket Journal.