05 October 2005

2. August 7: 144 miles west of Big Moon.


The only turtle in the wire pen was big and old, its shell scored and cracked. The boy watched it shuffle across the hardpan toward a puddle, its neck stretched. It slipped half into the water and turned around. The boy stood with his hands on the wire pen and stared at the turtle and the turtle stared back from two black eyes on either side of its flat head. Not far away, the boy’s mother was peering under the hood of her car with the station attendant, an older, bare-shouldered kid in grease-stained overalls.

The boy had never seen a station like this before. It was someone’s house. The front porch sagged and the dull gray of the wood showed through the white paint like bone. The yard was hardpan, littered with car parts and a few tree stumps, a big pin oak in back. Between the windows, gray and brown and flapping in the breeze, there were hides stretched on nails.

The boy and his mother had stopped because their car had begun to rattle when they crossed into Arkansas. It had reminded the boy of a rattle he’d heard one afternoon at the East Gate Laundromat back in Waco, when his father had forgotten his pocket knife in his jeans and it fell loose in the dryer. The boy had fished it from the warm clothes and almost dropped it. It was hot. Later, the blade rusted.

“Will it get me far as Mississippi?” he heard his mother say. Vicksburg?”

The attendant dug in his ear. He shrugged. “Might, might not. Like I said, it could be one of three things. Could be…”

The boy turned his attention back to the turtle.

The dirt floor of the pen—not much wider or longer than a kitchen table—was littered with lettuce leaves and rotten tomatoes.

A hand-lettered sign fixed to a post out by the highway read: “Turtle Meat For Sell.”

The turtle opened its mouth. Its tongue was broad and flat. The boy tried to imagine what touching it would feel like. He’d touched a parrot’s tongue once and it was like touching rubber and sand.

“How long?”

“Well, either way, have to order a part special…”

The turtle closed its mouth, blinked.

The boy looked around the yard. Old tires filled with rainwater, a rusted swing set. Near the back corner of the house, just before the dirt gave way to a soybean field that stretched green as far as the boy could see, there was a table made of plywood and two sawhorses. Atop the plywood: three empty turtle shells, set on their backs and drying in the sun. Flies crawled on the table and buzzed in the air.

Suddenly his mother spoke at his side: “We’re good and fudged, kiddo.”

The boy glanced up. She stood next to him, hands on her hips, staring in the vague direction of the turtle. Her shirtsleeves were rolled to the elbows, her long straw-colored hair trussed up in a blue handkerchief. She was sweating. There was a black smudge on the left thigh of her jeans where she’d leaned over the engine with the attendant.

“Like him,” the boy said.

She shifted her eyes, seeing the turtle for the first time.

“Only he doesn’t know it.”

She chewed her lip. “He says the car’ll get us to Vicksburg. Once we get there, we’ll have to order a part, find a place to stay. I’ll have to get a job.” She shook her head. “Goddamn, I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that asshole in Texarkana. ’88 Oldsmobile, last you forever. At that price? Jesus.”

The boy shook his head. “It’s not right.”

“Tell me about it.”

“No, I mean him.” He pointed.

“What? Oh.”

“He’s like the bears.”

“Bears?”

“The black bears Dad took us to see in Cherokee. The ones that lived in the concrete pits and got tossed vegetables by the Indians. They…” He paused, as if searching for the word. “…defecated right where they lived.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I remember the bears.”

“We should buy him,” the boy said.

Buy the turtle? Honey. Weren’t you listening? We don’t have any money as it is. We’ve got maybe enough for gas and food for three more days. Four if we eat mustard sandwiches. We’d have more if I hadn’t traded your daddy’s truck in for that goddamn shoebox…”

There were dark circles under her eyes. A few gray hairs above her ears. Tiny wrinkles at the base of her neck, where her grandmother’s locket fell in the center of her collar bone. She was beautiful.

“Trade,” the boy said. And turned to look at the attendant. The older boy was leaning against the right fender of their car, one hand on the trigger of the pump, the other in his nose. When he saw the boy turn, he slipped his finger out of his nose and wiped it on the thigh of his overalls.

The boy left his mother standing at the wire pen. He walked up to the attendant, who pretended not to see him. “How old are you?” he asked.

The attendant glanced down, then back in the direction of the mother, who had turned and was watching them.

“Seventeen,” the attendant said and spat in the dirt. “How old are you?”

“I’m twelve. What’s your name?”

“Bud. What’s yours?”

“Andy. You like comic books, Bud?”

“No comics. Sorry, kid.”

The boy shook his head. “No, do you like them? Do you read them?”

The attendant’s answer came slowly: “Can’t say I do.”

“Would you like to?”

The pump clicked full. The attendant drew out the nozzle and replaced it in the stirrup. He screwed the gas cap back into place and shrugged.

“I’ve got a box full in the trunk, and I’ll trade you the whole thing for your turtle.”

“My turtle.”

“Yes, sir.”

The attendant glanced at the boy’s mother. She stood with her arms folded, head cocked to the side.

The attendant narrowed his eyes: “What you want that turtle for?”

The boy shrugged. “I never had a turtle. You never had a comic book. Seems like a fair trade.”

The attendant pulled a rag from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his forearms and used the moisture on the rag to wipe the grime from his hands. He tucked the rag away. “Let’s see what you got,” he said.

The trunk was full of boxes and suitcases. The boy drew out a white cardboard tomato box and set it on the ground. The two hunkered over it. The attendant leafed through the boy’s comics, each one bagged and taped shut with single, neat strips of clear tape.

“Who’s this one here?”

“The Punisher.”

“Like the looks of him.”

“He’s my favorite. The one behind him’s Batman.”

“I know who Batman is.”

The boy said nothing.

The attendant stood up, put his hands on his hips. The boy could see his armpits, the thin brown hair that grew there like moss.

“How much you figure that whole box is worth?”

The boy thought. “Maybe forty, fifty dollars.”

The attendant spat. “It ain’t done it.”

“Twenty, thirty books, almost two bucks each.”

“Turtle meat’s $2.99 a pound. You gone be taking a loss.”

Again, the boy shrugged.

The attendant shook his head. “All right. You’re the customer. I’ll go round back, get you a crate for him, if you’ll set those on the porch. And tell your ma that’s twenty even for the gas.”

“Ma,” the boy said, after he’d put the box on the porch, “that’s twenty even for the gas.”

“Yeah. Well.” His mother cocked an eyebrow. “Maybe we’ll meet a mechanic in Vicksburg who’ll trade auto parts for turtles.”

The attendant set a red plastic milk crate in the backseat and lined the bottom with newspaper. He set the turtle in the crate, along with half a head of fresh lettuce and a plastic butter dish of water. The turtle kept its head and legs inside its shell.

The attendant shut the door and took the woman’s twenty. He leaned into the passenger’s side window and rested his elbows on the sill. The boy sat there, his mother rounding the car to get in. “You know,” the attendant said, “I’ll just go out tomorrow and get more turtles.”

The boy was close enough to smell the attendant’s breath. It was sour, like old cereal milk.

His mother got in, started the car.

The attendant gave the sill of the window a friendly thump. “Y’all have a safe trip now,” he said and moved away.

They pulled out onto the highway.

After a while, the boy’s mother asked him to roll his window up, and he did. She turned on the radio and they drove through the Delta in the stifling heat, classical music not quite drowning the rattle that grew louder with each passing mile.

In the backseat, in the milk crate, the turtle hid inside its shell.

8 Comments:

Blogger The Damned said...

Second paragraph: “The front porch sagged and through the white paint the dull gray of the wood showed like bone.”

Strange dialoge: “…You like comic books, Bud?’: I’m not sure if a 12 year old kid, no matter how “grown up” they are, would call a person they just met by their first name. It’s too grown up for me…also: “I never had a turtle. You never had a comic book. Seems like a fair trade.”: I would drop the “seems like a fair trade”

Wouldn’t the attendant assume the kid wants turtle meat, at first? Maybe I’m assuming Bud isn’t so bright…

I’m not sure if there is enough introspection on Andy’s (the kid’s) part about the comic books…should he have them on his mind while watching the turtle so that we see something at stake? I know this is a part of something bigger and it’s important to establish character and you want to move it fast, but I don’t see the trade as a big sacrifice on the kid’s part…even though he’s taken such good care of the comics.

Okay, this is tight, good, and interesting…but one thing, and I know you’re capable of this, Andy…I want to see the kid have some smartass comment for Bud when he says the line about going to get more turtles…

very good stuff
--joy

8:59 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Second paragraph: change "The yard was hardpan" to "The hardpan was littered with car parts..."

Great descriptions of the mother and the setting.

Great dialogue: "'It ain't done it.'"

The attendant does assume the boy wants the turtle for meat, right? He says, "'Turtle meat's $2.99 a pound. You gone be taking a loss.'"

My first initial response, my first question, is why is this scene with the turtle so important? What does it have to achieve to be able to stand alone as its own section or chapter? It functions dramatically to provide exposition, to tell us
1)they have car trouble and will need help
2)there's a father/husband in their past somewhere, minus his truck
3)and they're running out of money

What we don't know are the specific reasons/motivations for their journey--what they're running from or what they're running toward. I assume what they're running toward will be offered dramatically as we read the other sections of the narrative, establishing dramatic irony that will create/enhance tension in all the sections, not just theirs. But, I think we need to know more about what they're running from. I'm not sure if the father is meant to be sympathetic or not, so I would like some kind of flashback to suggest how to read the trip to see the bears. Why did the father take the boy there? What did he want him to see? Also, why were they in the father's truck, why did they have to trade it in, and where is he now?

"The trunk was full of boxes and suitcases"--does this mean they're moving out, or is the father dead? Does he know about their journey, or not?

Adam

9:15 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Also, I like that the boy identifies with the turtle. I think there's some subtle foreshadowing there, maybe. I wonder if that association between the mother/child pair and the turtle can be developed without losing that subtlety.

9:59 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

i think adam raises some good points, but i think they are plot points, not ones that nec. need addressing here in this portion of the narrative...i do feel that what i've called "what's at stake" may have something to do with the father and that should be exposed, but if there is a conflict with dear ole dad, does that all need to come out right now and weigh the story down--no...what we need, as the audience is to know that something real, the father, the books, whatever, has been lost and replaced by the turtle

my questions are more basic i guess: where do the comics come from? who has taught him to kep them this way? why get rid of them all of a sudden for a turtle? would the mom say something about it?

i don't need pages of flashback or expose, just some notion that they're more important than anything else in this kid's life right now and he decides to trade them for something that he empathizes with (the turtle)

maybe we're reading too much into this, and i suspect we are...but i do feel that while this is very good, it lacks the element of connectivity to Andy's past that we need a glimpse of in order to understand the importance of this first grand gesture
--joy

3:34 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Amendment: no flashback. Joy's right, it would break up the pacing of this scene. Still, as I think Joy is saying, I would like to see (in this section) some kind of suggestion about why this is a significant moment. We know the literal action: destitute boy and mom stop for gas and boy saves turtle by trading in comic books; but what's the essential action? What's really going on here? We don't quite have enough to say, I don't think, but the answer has something to do with the father--it seems to me. Maybe I'm missing it, or maybe there's nothing more intended.

But if there's nothing more intended, if this is action for its own sake--and I don't think it is--why not have something extravagant happen? Why not have the man burn the comics, kill the turtle, pimp the mom, sell the son, and move to Mexico?

3:48 PM  
Blogger michelhuron50957778 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:17 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Adam,

That's a great suggestion. I'll do it. Have them move to Mexico, I mean.

Seriously, you guys are right. I like the term you use: "essential action." I think the reason the kid's doing it is twofold: 1) he wants to save the turtle from a bad situation, essentially what his mother's done for him by removing him from the home with the father and 2) he wants to emulate her, as a sort of unconscious expression of love.

I need to get more in with the father, and I like the idea of doing something with the bears, actually. Maybe a paragraph or two, at most.

As for why the comics, that's a tough one. As you may have guessed, "Andy" is based loosely on me, my own childhood love for comics. Escapism. Kitchens, the fat strip club owner, says something about his dad, fishing, funny books. I think I'll move this to Andy's character, use the comics as Andy's expression of an alternative to his father's world of "manly" things.

Gracias, amigos.

Andy

2:35 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

That's interesting what you say about Andy using the comics as an expression of an alternative to 'manly' things. As we know, superhero comics are about traditionally masculine narratives of power and vindication, and Andy's favorite, The Punisher (from what I know, I've never read any of these) is about a human (rather than super-human) vigilante. So yeah, I think it works. He's trading in retribution, the revenge-tragedy impulse for a supposedly-feminine divine mercy. I think that's great. Mercy takes revenge on the sin, not the sinner.

6:20 AM  

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