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    Photos by Mickie Winters

     

    He runs a little water in the tub before he picks up Spike by the sides of his shell. One hundred and thirty-five pounds is a lot of tortoise, but William Duncan’s big arms, thickened over with gray hair, still take the weight just fine after some seven years lifting a member of the third-largest tortoise species alive. Spike barely fits, about an inch between the flared edge of his shell and the tub. Once he was the size of a golf ball. Pretty soon, Duncan knows, he won’t be able to bathe him inside. But today water runs over the rocky geography of Spike’s body. Duncan slides his hand across the living stone and sweeps veils of dirty water off the edge. He is clean. 

    June 20 was so hot it hurt to talk about the weather even more than usual, so hot the outside world slowed down — everything except for the cold-blooded reptile, who crossed a baking plain of blacktop heated and happy, still sharp from his bath. His 60-year-old human companion followed him outside to the parking lot like he followed him everywhere. People think Duncan leads Spike on their long walks through downtown and NuLu — “Is that a turtle?” passersby say, or don’t have to say — but most of the time, Spike goes where Spike wants. Wayside Christian Mission, the homeless shelter and recovery center on Jefferson Street, is his kingdom. He patrols the basement, the hallway, the elevator, even wanders into people’s private rooms. Now Spike wanted to snack on grass in the juicy sun. He lifted himself over the curb and sat upon a patch of green. Duncan stood at the entrance of the parking lot, talking with a friend of his named Bill about something or another. Who could remember, after what happened?

    A deep-blue car glistening like a rare fish pulled into the lot. Duncan says he can’t remember the make or model — it was a newer Chevy Cruze — but remembers the color, the brightness. He looked around for Spike but couldn’t see him. “Hey!” he shouted. But the car didn’t stop. 

    It all happened before Duncan could even run the few steps over the Tic Tac box of a parking lot beside Wayside. The front left tire rolled up and over Spike’s side at a sharp angle. If the driver — a Wayside volunteer — had stopped when she first ran over Spike, his shell might have protected him. But apparently unsure what had happened, she tried to back up. When that didn’t work, she pulled forward again. Duncan says she dragged Spike about 10 feet. And then the car crashed down, the frame slamming Spike’s shell. A sound like a firecracker exploding. Exploding in Duncan’s stomach. He knocked on the window and the woman got out of the car. Duncan thinks she was crying, though this part of the story has gotten hazy. What he remembers, all he remembers, is Spike, trapped under the frame of the car, behind the wheel, busted open like a watermelon, his craggy legs lifting feebly. A vertical crack opened the left side of Spike’s shell, just behind his front leg. A tiny river delta of blood escaped him. Someone, maybe Bill, maybe a Wayside staffer named Dale, called the police. Duncan looked for a jack to get the car off Spike but couldn’t find one. Wayside residents gathered in the lot. Staffers at Wayside relayed the message to the president and CEO of the organization, Tim Moseley. He called his wife Nina, Spike’s owner and the chief operations officer at Wayside, and she drove over in a rush and dropped down to the ground beside Spike. About a dozen officers showed up. One of them asked the woman who had hit Spike if she had a jack, and she said that she didn’t know. She tried to open her trunk, fumbling with the button, but couldn’t get it to pop. Finally, an officer realized that her car was still in gear, stuck it in park and got the trunk open. There was a jack inside.

    Officer Shaun Sargent catapulted the car up with the jack. Sweat rolled off him. “How does someone run over a tortoise?” he thought. Around him people spoke gravely into cell phones, others holding their mouths in their hands. The car was smashing the life out of their friend in front of them. Sargent worked as if it were a person trapped under there. When he got the car off Spike, the sound of shell popping from the change in pressure cannoned through Duncan’s ears. Spike’s legs kicked back and forth, faster now. The crack on his left side like a door left ajar on a nightmare, nothing but blood and meat beyond. A big gash cut across the top of his shell, a thin window to internal organs. Spike was shattered, shards of his shell crumbling into his wound. It looked like someone had dropped an axe wedge on the center of his shell. No, it looked like he’d been run over by a car. 

    “This is the end of Spike,” Duncan thought.

    Moseley looked up from the bleeding ruin of the friend she’d known for nearly his whole life of 13 years. His legs lifted and dropped again. Officer Lisa Nagle would later describe Moseley, simply, as “distraught.” “What do I do?” Moseley said. “Where do I take him? Where do I take him?”

    The Louisville Zoo referred them to Shively Animal Hospital. It was already late in the afternoon, and the officers worried the hospital would close to new patients before they could get Spike there. Moseley didn’t know where the hospital was. An officer said that someone would have to pay for the veterinary services up front. “I’ll pay it, I’ll pay it,” Moseley said. With that, officers lifted the blanket and set Spike into the back seat of Moseley’s Honda Accord. Duncan hopped in after him. A few scales lay in the parking lot, and a long white scar clawed across the blacktop. Later, Duncan wondered if that blue car had scratched it in using Spike like a busted nib. The fire department washed away the blood.

    One squad car led the way and another followed Moseley, racing to Dixie Highway. When they arrived, a team of vets rushed out with a stretcher and took Spike in for surgery. Dr. Mary Jane Fuchs had seen similar injuries plenty of times — turtles get attacked by dogs, chopped up by lawn mowers. But this was an especially big tortoise, an especially traumatic case. When vets pressed down on Spike’s shell, they felt wind rush up out of his exposed lungs — a breath that wasn’t breathed. His shell was too badly broken to neatly fit back together, so the vets had to remove pieces from the top before replacing the biggest fragments. After several hours, they had glued Spike back together with wire and acrylic paste. It looked like someone had covered the top of his shell in chewed-up bubblegum. His broken pelvis would have to heal on its own. No one knew if Spike would survive. 

    Spike’s popularity exploded after the accident. He’s a well-known oddity throughout the city, catching a lot of attention on his walks with Duncan. He once walked the half-mile to the waterfront — a heck of a journey when you move at a pace of about one block per half hour. WHAS-11 and WAVE-3 TV both covered Spike’s accident. A trendy bar in NuLu called Galaxie hosted a benefit concert, where Duncan sat awash in laser light, looking out of place in the crowd of young, tatted people. He pointed to one of the little green lights zipping across the floor and said, “I bet Spike would try to eat those.” A stranger named Glenn Smith, still so emotional over the loss of his own dog that he breaks into tears when he talks about it, set up a GoFundMe account online where people could donate money, and posted updates on Spike’s condition regularly. The digital prism of social media projected the page everywhere, easy to find for anyone who got interested after they heard about the accident on the news. Money poured in in increments of $5, $10, $20, $50. Garage Bar donated $170. Soon there were thousands of dollars. At press time, the page had collected more than $11,000. So far, Spike has racked up about $3,000 in medical bills. Mosley says the rest of the donations will help build an outdoor tortoise habitat at Wayside. 

    I get the Spike love. The shell of an African spurred tortoise is so remarkable that humans immediately interpret it as the most indicative property of the entire animal — a tortoise is its shell, a fortress of terraced keratin and bones, impervious to the greatest predators of the most competitive food chain in the world: Africa. The tortoise is specialized, it has an identity. They are classified as a “vulnerable” species, just one step up from endangered. The herbivores live a remarkably long life — up to 150 years, though the oldest captive African spurred tortoises recorded were in their 50s. Their dead reptilian stare is made bearable by their long, silly necks and dopey, slow strides. Tortoises are their own armor; they are their home and their home is them. People relate to this because they want containers for themselves, too: homes, outfits, beds, names. These help us cope with the universal knowledge that the earth is a kicked (or not kicked) pebble hurtling through nothing. We retreat into the shells of ourselves. It is no wonder that the tortoise shows up in so many creation myths, my favorite of which says a great tortoise supports the whole world on its back.

    But there’s a problem: Under enough pressure, anything, even a tortoise shell, breaks.

     

    Duncan had been alone a long time. He liked being alone. Back in high school in Evansville, Indiana, he spent as much time as he could perfecting his golf swing. He worked at a golf course in exchange for lessons from an old pro everybody called Dutch. He played on his school team, but they always fell short of the state competition. His dad was a typical tough guy, and he kept pushing Duncan to help him with his business doing maintenance on apartments. But Duncan wanted none of it; he only wanted to stand in the tee box alone and swing, swing, swing. He knows now his problem was everybody else; he imitated the other golfers on his team when he should have let his club swoop down its own trajectory. Trying to be like the others got him off course. After golf, he drank beer with his buddies. He never liked the vodka, but they did, and so he copied that, too.

    Flash-forward a few years and Duncan has dropped out of the University of Southern Indiana near Evansville after three years, bored with his first major, business, and lousy at his second, computers. Flash-forward a few more years and he’s been working at a car wash for nearly a decade, cleaning cars until he’s out of breath, going nowhere, approaching the middle of his life and living alone in an apartment. Drinking again. Sometimes he tries to articulate why — anxiety, depression, things he learned to name and cope with at Wayside — but really it comes down to the feeling. He liked the feeling of drunkenness. He never got into the pills his coworkers would buy when they got paid. The beer was enough. Except beer is never enough, and so he drank more of it, chasing the feeling, the lack thereof. A can, a six-pack, a 12-pack, another. The TV played whatever it played. Played through the work day. Played through rent time. Played until the lights went off and the door closed behind Duncan as he left his home for the first time in a while. For the last time. 

    One day Duncan drank himself to the bottom of a bottle and saw through it’s clear bottom his distorted reality: A bank slumped down toward the Ohio River. A train whistle lamented through the darkness and died out over the current. (The sound of water moving outlasts all others.) Tents all about like discarded things. His life — his old life — had broken down. In 2000, his sisters brought him to a recovery center in Louisville, but he gave it up. Now he had no home. His outfit was not an outfit but a survival tool. His bed was the ground. 

    The past month, five months, eight months lapsed into memory — meals at shelters, drinks scraped together from whatever money whoever had, summer months spent so sweaty and dehydrated from alcohol Duncan would go down to a bus station and drink from the water fountains to survive, winter months cold to the marrow. 

    Duncan realized it was snowing. The K&I train bridge in the Portland neighborhood above his camp like the rusty skeleton of a strange, extinct creature. He was thirsty with the kind of thirst you can’t quench. He opened another King Cobra malt liquor and walked along the slick bank. The feeling again, first in his lips, then his throat, then his belly. And then no feeling, no Duncan at all.

    It must have felt familiar when his feet flew out from under him and the world spun around and swung back up to meet him again, hard. His foot slid backward at a bad angle, and his body dropped down on top of it. Damn, it hurt. A light opened up in his leg and cast the world in sharp relief. Duncan saw clearly now the weather-beaten people around him, the metal bones of the bridge faceting the sky, snow falling everywhere — upon all the living and the dead, Joyce wrote. Which was Duncan back then? Living or dead? Cold, distant stars stared down through the roof that wasn’t there. “I could have another drink,” he thought. But then he thought, “I can never have another drink.” Someone had a cell phone, someone called an ambulance. After the doctors put his bones back together, he went directly from the hospital to Wayside. 

    That was 14 years ago. Just a few months later, somewhere else in the city, in a warm, warm room, Nina Moseley held a tiny new life in her upturned hand. 

    Centrochelys sulcata,” Duncan says, pulling Latin out of nowhere. “That’s what Spike is — chelonian.” He and Moseley are standing in an examination room at the Shively Animal Hospital a little over a week after the accident. Duncan nods at the poster on the wall. It says “Chelonian Anatomy” at the top, above six white silhouettes of turtles, each filled with a different level of colorful anatomy: a turtle full of muscles, a turtle full of veins, a turtle full of bones. The turtle on the bottom right has a beautiful set of lungs. Moseley hopes Spike’s are all right.

    Spike’s stay at the hospital has been rough so far. The vets have kept him full of antibiotics and pain medication. But for several days he showed no interest in food. Moseley and Duncan visited every evening, bringing fruits and vegetables. Moseley would slice an apple with her pocketknife and rub the sweet flesh on Spike’s beak, but he’d turn his head and drag himself into the corner of the room. “When tortoises experience severe trauma, they have a tendency to just shut down,” the vets told Moseley. Spike was giving up. 

    The vets shot goopy food down his mouth with a syringe each day, but he didn’t defecate. This suggested a problem with his intestines. (Today, Duncan stares up at the top-right turtle on the poster, the bruised fruits of the gastrointestinal system, like he’s looking at a math problem.) Spike would poop, or Spike would die. His broken pelvis and lacerated back leg — Moseley and Duncan each saved some of the scales from the parking lot — prevented Spike from walking, or even standing at his usual, proud height. Instead, he scooted around like, well, a tortoise stuck on its back, only Spike was stuck on his stomach. He struggled until the crack on his left side reopened, and the vets had to fill it with more acrylic paste, a bigger bubblegum scar. 

    Finally, a few days later, Moseley got him to eat. He chomped down an entire bag of apple slices, a banana, some squash, some broccoli and a taste of home: a big handful of grass from Wayside. He ate the next day, and the next, but he still didn’t defecate. Moseley and Duncan patted his shell, wondering what was going on in there, what was wrong with the secret world inside of Spike. The vets tried taking him outside, medicating him with stool softeners. But nothing worked. 

    And then, last night, they tried a kiddy pool. They ran a little water in the pool before they picked up Spike — ever so carefully, his heavy shell now so fragile. Water ran over him and, Lord have mercy, a little poop came out. Not a lot, but some. Dr. Fuchs still worried about the possibility of a blockage, further internal injury; Spike’s waste had not come from the food he’d recently eaten. He’d just evacuated the grass he’d eaten before the accident.

    Fuchs and Denise Beckovich, both in scrubs, slide Spike into the examination room on a towel. He ducks his big snake head behind the spiky guard plate on the front of his shell and urinates on the towel. Moseley hunkers down, pulls a strand of her wild blond hair behind her ear, and coos at Spike. “Spikerooni,” she says. He sticks his head out for a big bite of banana, and Moseley rubs his neck, the leathery skin sliding back and forth. Then he drags himself under a chair, nearly knocking it over, leaving a puddle of urine behind him. Duncan grabs a paper towel and follows behind him. No one has ever been so happy to mop up bio waste. 

     

    The printing instructor would yell at him when he got his fingers too close to the machines. He was mean about it too, but that’s the way you have to be when you’re teaching someone to run a printing press. “It takes 18 years to be a printer,” Duncan yells over the roar of the folding machine. He sidesteps between teetering, head-high towers of paper and feeds pages into one side of the machine. An intimidating series of rollers and winding gears sucks them in, spits them into a corner and shoots them forward onto a little belt, each neatly folded three times. Duncan’s been working in Wayside’s basement print shop for a decade now, the craft quick in his always ink-stained hands. 

    Duncan has lived and worked at Wayside since he came here for the recovery program in 2002. Suddenly the man so accustomed to solitude lived a life of no privacy. “I guess I liked being alone, but it’s not good for you,” he tells me. The shelter houses 335 to 450 people every night. The concrete floors throughout much of the facility amplify footsteps to clod-hops; no one moves in secret here. They live together, heal together, work together, eat together in the cafeteria. At Wayside, Duncan barely had time to think about drinking. Therapy and work, therapy and work, and don’t ever reach in after a snagged paper, William, it’s not worth your fingers. Ten years swept by across the printing press rollers: letters, memorials, newsletters topped with crimson ink. Now Duncan runs the print shop himself. Now he knows everyone’s name. He talks golf with buddies in the halls, goes out for a game whenever he can. At some point recovering tipped toward recovered, though no one speaks of alcoholism in the past tense. “I went through the recovery program.” That’s how Duncan puts it. And now he’s down here in the print shop from about 8 in the morning to about 4 in the afternoon every weekday, printing and folding with contraptions easily mistaken for 14th-century torture devices. “I’d like to work in a real print shop,” he says. “As far as pay goes, there’s nowhere to go here.” A copy crinkles into the machine and a noise like a jackhammer on blacktop assaults our eardrums. Duncan smacks a big red button and the whole operation stops. Quiet settles like a mist. This is the only silence I have heard at Wayside, the one place that sounds like solitude. Duncan fills an old box with exactly 1,000 folded copies. “I don’t have to count them, but I do,” he says. “There’s a lot of us here like that.” He means a lot of people at Wayside have anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder. 

    He grabs one of the boxes, takes an old elevator up to a hallway, and steps out into the echoes to drop it off for enveloping. Fifteen different people ask him about Spike in 20 minutes. He’s making it, he tells them. His rock is still there. “Spike is the reason I keep going,” he tells me. He can never go back to the bottle and the bridge. The tortoise needs him, now more than ever. 

    Nina Moseley bought Spike from a pet store when he was a tiny little reptile with no indication of the enormous beast she knew he might one day become. He outgrew every tank she got for him. When he got too big for the 100-gallon tank, she decided to move him to Wayside, a place, she figured, where a slow-moving but determined creature would fit in just fine. “We use Spike as an analogy,” she says. Only the tortoise can win the slow race toward recovery. 

    Duncan took to Spike on his own. If he wasn’t following the tortoise, the tortoise was following him. People would mistake Spike for a dog a block away, but when they got close, their eyes would pop. News stations stopped Duncan on the street to ask about his exotic friend. “Oh, I’ve seen him,” a friend of mine told me. “He’s the tortoise guy.” 

    And that’s what he is. He’s the tortoise guy now. The tortoise guy with no tortoise.

    “Mr. William, there’s a gray car!” The woman looks down Jefferson Street, turns her head back to Duncan, her short curls bouncing, the sun as bright as her tie-dye shirt. She has missed Spike these past 18 days, and can’t wait for him to come home. She looks to be in her 20s, heavy-set and bright-eyed. She stands at the edge of the small crowd that has gathered in front of Wayside. More than 20 wait to welcome Spike back. Young mothers tell their children to be patient. Two news cameras wait by the doors, and people with notebooks chat with Moseley and Duncan. 

    “Mr. William, there’s another gray car!” the young woman in tie-dye calls. “Never mind. That one turned right.” Duncan grins a grin that drops a few decades off his face. 

    “That’s them! That’s them!” 

    The cameras turn as the car pulls up. Denise Beckovich and another woman in scrubs drive up to the door and step around to the back of the vehicle. Spike raises his head from the kiddy pool. Gray epoxy covers the pink acrylic on top of his shell. Duncan pulls up a little wooden cart with a rope handle and helps set Spike down. “Hey, Spike!” people call. “We love you, Spike!” Beckovich puts her hand on Spike’s back, balancing him on the narrow cart, and the moving party steps between the news cameras and heads inside. Through the hall, up the elevator, through a set of doors. Spike tries to pull himself up, and Beckovich has to keep sliding him back onto the cart. Finally, they make it to Duncan’s room, a simple little space with a twin bed, a couple of dressers, an old TV, plants in the window. A bouquet of golf clubs by his closet. A fat gray-and-white cat named Annie curls up on the mattress and glares at her new roommate.

    Spike’s pelvis is still healing, his back right leg still injured. He has trouble walking, and will have to be confined to Duncan’s room for a while. Fuchs will later plan nerve testing to determine the extent of Spike’s leg injury. For now, he can walk, just not far. For now, he’s home. He crawls into the center of the room and drops a damned gorgeous heap of shit. Duncan mops at it with a tube sock. “Don’t use that, William. I’ll get you some paper towels,” Moseley says. Duncan smiles at the pile. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Me and Spike don’t mind.” He looks out the window. It’ll be a long time before they go on one of their walks again. Spike may never walk like he used to. If he has to, Duncan will pull Spike on a cart. At least it’d be easier to get him to go where he wanted. Before, when Duncan was done with a walk, he’d sometimes have to turn Spike like the wheel of an old boat and point him toward home. Then he’d wonder what was on the menu back home, or how his neighbor’s kittens were doing back home, or which pages he’d print in the morning at the job just a few floors below his home. He’d think of the life he’s made. And he’d look down at Spike’s shell. 

    Home is a beautiful word.

     

    This originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Staff writer Dylon Jones first contributed to the magazine in 2014 and joined the staff in 2015. He's written profiles, features, essays, criticism and reportage about a wide variety of topics and won awards for feature writing and profile writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is particularly interested in narrative journalism, the arts and LGBTQ experience. Jones is an award-winning poet with work published or forthcoming in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Collagist and Redivider.

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