Howard grabbed a banana from his fruit basket and broke it in two. He had just bought a bunch from the farmer’s market on a whim, as he hadn’t had one in a while. The tortoise was still on its back outside, legs feeling for the ground. Howard peeled each half of the banana individually, leaving the connecting strand in the middle, which made them resemble primitive nun chucks. He held the two pieces of fruit in either hand, taking intermittent bites so they stayed at an even height. The meat of the banana was pulpy and slightly wet, and the bruised bits were sweeter and softer than the usual firmness he preferred.
As he watched the tortoise from his window, his thoughts drifted to when he and Grace had an impromptu picnic on the lake. The one that went wrong.
It had been a perfect day. The sun was high overhead, giving off enough heat to keep them in their summer wear, but not so much that it was unbearable. Everything on the lake pulsed with life. The trees on the far bank lush and green, leaves rustling in the breeze. The water itself was cloudy with mud and clay, but still reflected a near-perfect image of the tree line on its glassy surface.
“You’re so weird. You know that right?” Grace said, popping another grape into her mouth. She sat across from him on the canoe as they drifted on the open water.
Howard shrugged and took a huge bite of the banana, finishing one of the halves. He puffed out his cheeks and drooped his jaw in perfect imitation of a baboon. Grace laughed, dunking her hand in the water and flicking her fingers so that droplets splashed on him. “You know I hate that face,” she said.
Howard finished his banana, and was just about to comment on what a great idea this all had been, when his phone vibrated in his pocket.
“Hello?” he said. “Yes.” He looked at Grace. “Yes, I understand.” A flock of geese passed nearby, and Howard watched the fuzzy goslings follow their parents among the reeds. A gust of wind rushed past and he put a finger to his ear. “What? No, no. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Love you too.”
“Who was that?” Grace asked after he had hung up.
The phone hung limp in one hand. “My mom. My grandfather had a heart attack. Said she found him on the couch a few hours ago.” His voice was calm, unwavering.
“Oh my god.”
“So.” Howard looked down at the empty banana peel still in his hands. “We should probably go then,” he said.
The funeral was that weekend. When he was asked to be a pallbearer he excused himself to the bathroom and stifled sobs in one of the stalls. It was strange. He and his grandfather had never been close, but for some reason the death seemed more real than he thought it would. Perhaps because it was so unexpected. His grandmother was in a home, and they had all expected her to go first. And his grandfather had been young. Just sixty-five. His big belly and silver hair had never changed.
Howard didn’t finish the service with the rest of his family. Didn’t watch his grandfather be lowered six-feet-under in a wooden box. Instead he smoked a cigarette and walked among the other tombstones, wondering if one day someone would pass by his grandfather’s in a similar way.
A well-dressed lawyer with a thin, receding hairline and a thin receding voice went over the particulars of his grandfather’s will with them. Howard had somehow gotten the house, and what possessions they had left in it. A few things went to his mother and uncle: the car, the money, and the collection of family videos and photo albums, but for the most part they were left out. His uncle hadn’t been happy about that, feeling as though he deserved more, he stormed out. Howard hadn’t talked to him since.
That had been close to six months ago, and Howard still didn’t feel at home. It was strange, living alone in a place that he had once only visited for family cookouts and get-togethers. Sometimes his mother would leave him for a weekend, which he would spend watching television until he was ushered outside by his grandmother, where he climbed trees and collected interesting rocks before having a dinner of bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches. Now he did crosswords and fussed over the roses, and ate frozen pizzas and cold cereal.
The tortoise was still out there. He had left it lying on its back for a whole day now. Would the thing remember how cruel he was being to it? He wondered if he could leave it like that until it died. But as soon as the thought entered his mind Howard knew he would never go through with it. Even though the tortoise had given him a world of grief, he couldn’t bring himself to let the old, pathetic creature go like that.
But he’d still leave it there one more day. Just to teach it a lesson.