By Melissa Knudsen
The week before Thanksgiving when I was seven, I learned that turtles
are indestructible. That day at school we had taped on the wall a six-foot
tall paper turkey with twenty-five feathers-one for each of us to write our
name on and color. I crayoned my feather purple and green and wrote
"Melissa" on it, then added Toby's name since he was my first pet.
Elizabeth Frazier, who sat next to me, snickered. "She wrote her turtle's
name on her feather,'' she said. Danny Stringer and Jimmy Bullinger
The kids in my class still called me "the new girl" even though we'd
lived in Riverside for a month and a half. Elizabeth Frazier hated me since
my second day in class because Mrs. Smurthwaite let me take home one
of the pollywogs she used in a lesson about frogs, and my little brother
Todd poured it down the kitchen sink.
''So you let the pollywog get killed,'' Elizabeth said, winding one
of her white braids around her finger. ''If I'd taken him home he would
never've gotten killed. I'd've put him in a vase on the bookshelf where
my brother couldn't get him.'' She pointed her pencil at me. ''But of course
you didn' t think of that.'' Jimmy Bullinger turned around and raised his
A couple of weeks after the pollywog died I heard Mom tell Dad that
being broke was no excuse for letting us miss our childhood. I guess that's
why they let us keep the turtle. That's also why we went to the drive-in
four times that fall. Each time we went Todd and I put on clean pajamas
and tennis shoes, crawled into the back of our Dodge with pillows and
a blanket, and squealed all the way to the drive-in, anticipating hot
popcorn. Once we got a chocolate-dipped ice cream that melted over our
fingers. Before the movie started we'd play on the swings, tinny music
sounding over the loudspeaker; after the movie started we'd fall asleep,
shoes full of sand.
We went to the drive-in for the first time the night before I found
the turtle. That night I was allowed to invite Scotty, the boy next door;
he was my age, blond, and freckled. He usually rode his red bicycle over
to our yard to play after school, but we hadn't been allowed to play with
each other for a week after Mom found us giving each other moviestar kisses
under a blanket on the front lawn. That night, though, Scotty went with
us; Mom pulled me into the bathroom before we left and told me to act
like a lady. Scotty wore his pajamas to the drive-in too. We played on the
swings and Scotty told me his dad had bought him some fish. After the
movie started Mom looked over the front seat at Scotty and me several times
and then we fell asleep.
After we went to the drive-in Scotty invited me over to see his fish.
He had three striped fish and two goldfish and I sprinkled food on top
of the water and watched the fish close their mouths around the flecks.
I only helped Scotty feed his fish three times; Mom said I shouldn't go
over to Scotty's very often. Scotty's father was fat and he smoked in front
of the TV in his undershirt. He rarely said anything to me except "Hi there,
Sugar," so I didn't know him very well, but Val, Scotty's mother, came
over to our house often. She and Mom would wash and set each other's
hair on Saturdays; they'd drape old towels around their shoulders, brush
purple cream on their hair, and cover their heads with plastic bags. A couple
of Saturdays after I found the turtle I was stacking bobby pins in piles,
watching Val set Mom's hair.
"It must have been awful living with Jim's relatives," Val said.
"It was more than awful. It was hell. I'm sure I had a minor breakdown
while we were living with Polly and Merlin. I told Jim then that I didn't
care if we lived in the street; I'm never living with relatives again."
I went outside to play with the turtle. The day I found him I was
still heady and glad from the drive-in the night before and Elizabeth Frazier
was at home with the mumps. On top of that we made china handprints
at school. Mrs. Smurthwaite brought a little furnace to school and we pressed
our right hand in clay, scratched our names around the print, and fired
it to blue porcelain. I walked home from school whistling, stepping
carefully, holding my glass handprint in my flat palm.
When I passed the stop sign two blocks from my house, I stopped
and stared across the street. I crossed. I'd only seen pictures of turtles, so
the one pulling himself along the sidewalk was monstrous. His shell was
great squares of hard, smooth, mottled brown; his neck strained forward,
black eyes staring straight ahead, stubbed legs scraping warm cement. I
set my lunchpail on the sidewalk and ran home, holding my handprint
with both hands.
Mom was hanging clothes on the line, diapers and towels snapping
in the wind.
"Mom! I found a turtle! Come quick!"
She took a clothespin out of her mouth. "What, Honey?"
''There's a turtle on the sidewalk, just a few blocks down. Come on,
I'll show you. It's huge!"
She turned to look at me. "A turtle on the sidewalk? Are you sure?"
I hopped up and down. "Mom, of course I'm sure. Come on."
She sighed, dropped her clothespin in the basket, and followed me.
The turtle was still there. He stopped crawling when our shadows fell
''It is a big turtle,'' Mom said. ''I wonder who owns it.'' We stared
''Maybe he escaped from the zoo,'' I said.
"I doubt it," Mom smiled. "He must belong to someone. But who?"
She looked up and down the street. "We'd better take him home until
we find out who owns him.''
That night after dinner Mom told Dad to ask around the
neighborhood. He came back after an hour, shaking his head. "No one
seems to know who owns it,'' he said. ''The lady across the street stared
at me as if I'd told her we'd found a giraffe on the sidewalk."
So the turtle became our pet. Dad said it was a desert turtle and he
didn't know where we would put him once it got cold, but until then we
could keep him in the plant potter around the tree in our backyard. Even
though I found the turtle, I let Todd name him Toby because he started
to cry when I suggested Priscilla.
I was the only one in my class who had a turtle. When I told Elizabeth
Frazier about our new pet she tossed her braids and said, ''Make sure your
little brother doesn't kill him." But the other kids were impressed. Lisa
Clayson and Susan Hutchins came over once for a tea party and we dressed
Toby in my doll's clothes while Scotty called us "sissies" from behind his
fence and threw pieces of bark at us. I was always excited to play with Toby
after school. Todd was usually already lying on the lawn singing to him.
I'd tell Toby stories about Princess Melissa and Toby her faithful steed.
Sometimes I'd make Todd a prince. We fed Toby wilted lettuce and cabbage
and carrots--once the spinach we saved from dinner--and we tried to feed
him cotton candy and apples and yogurt. I laughed when Toby's mouth
snapped on my fingertips.
We had Toby for several weeks before we got ready for Halloween. At
school we were carving jack-o-lanterns, cutting witches out of black
construction paper, pasting smiling ghosts on the windows, and arranging
a fall display out of purple corn and striped gourds and apples. Mom started
going to work with Dad every day and we had a babysitter named Janet.
Sometimes I'd come home from school and find her smoking and kissing
her boyfriend on the couch. I went over to Scotty's more often and we
made birds' nests out of playdough and colored over the House and Garden
magazines in his garage. I looked at the pictures of the smiling women
with tall, stiff hair like my mother's; I traced over the apron-waisted woman
pointing at an oven and holding a roasted chicken on a platter.
As Thanksgiving approached I asked Mom if I could send Aunt Polly
and Uncle Merlin a letter for Thanksgiving and tell them about our new
pet. She pursed her lips and said, ''Ask your father.'' Dad helped me write
"Dear Aunt Polly and Uncle Merlin, Happy Thanksgiving. I have a turtle
now. His name is Toby. Love, Melissa.' '
We lived with Aunt Polly and Uncle Merlin for two months before
moving to Riverside. It rained a lot there and the empty field across the
street from the house turned to mud. I had to cross it to get to school.
One morning I was late because I'd been crying that I didn't want to go
to school and one of my boots stuck in the mud. I limped home, mother
spanked me, and I had to go to school anyway.
Uncle Merlin was a psychiatrist. Aunt Polly had crinkled dark hair
and small eyes. Their two daughters were thin and pasty, wore curlers to
bed, and listened to Burt Bacharac songs on the radio. They tried to teach
me the words to some of them. One afternoon I came in through the
screendoor and I heard Polly and Mom talking in the kitchen.
Polly's voice was shrill. "If you and Jim are so poor that you have to
live with us, why does Melissa have a new pair of pants? Don't deny that
she has new clothes because she showed them to me last night.''
Mother's voice was quieter. "Polly, we're not hiding anything from
you. I bought those pants with green stamps. She has to have something
to wear to school.' '
Polly slammed a plate on the counter. I went down the hall to our
room. Not long after that we moved. Polly's girls waved good-bye, the radio
droning from their bedroom window.
Dad sent the letter for me the same day we colored the turkey at school.
That afternoon Todd and I were building Toby a house out of leaves. Scotty
and I weren't allowed to play with each other again because Janet caught
us giving each other moviestar kisses in the closet. Mom was home that
day doing laundry.
Scotty climbed over the fence.
"What are you doing here? I'm not allowed to play with you," I said.
Todd poked his tongue out at him.
Scotty put his finger on his lips. "Be quiet. Listen, Danny's over at
my house and he wants to see the turtle. He says he'll pay us a nickel.
Then we can buy some candy.'' He winked.
I shook my head.
''Come on, I'll just borrow him for a minute and then I'll bring him
back. Then I'll buy us some candy."
I looked at Toby, then at Scotty, thought about the candy, then finally
nodded. "O.K., but bring him right back.''
Scotty grinned. He picked up Toby and carried him over to the chain
link fence between our yards. He set Toby on the ground and climbed
halfway up the fence. "Now you hand me Toby and I'll just put him on
top of the fence while I climb over.''
I looked at the fence for a second, picked up Toby, and handed him
to Scotty. He set Toby on top of the fence.
Todd, Scotty, and I watched as Toby wobbled, lurched, then fell on
the cement on the other side of the fence. Scotty's mouth fell open. I
screamed, "You've killed him!" and scampered up the fence. Toby was
on his back. Green innards oozed onto the cement. I climbed back over
the fence and ran inside.
"Mom! Scotty's killed Toby! He fell on the cement and his insides
are running out!"
She stared at me for a second, then wiped her hands on a towel and
ran outside just as Val came out of her house. They stared at Toby. Scotty
started to whimper. I just stared.
Val said, "What are we going to do?"
Mom turned to me. ''Run inside quick and get two spoons. Quick!''
When I came back out with the spoons Todd was kneeling by Toby,
crying. I handed Mom the spoons. She gave one to Val. They looked at
each other and knelt on the pavement.
Mom turned Toby over. His shell was smashed. She took out the pieces,
scooped up some of the green innards, and spooned them into his back.
Val helped. Mom started to cry.
Then they put his shell back together like a jigsaw puzzle; Mom
brought out a roll of masking tape and they wound it around and around
Toby until he looked like a mummy. An hour later he was crawling around
I didn't tell anyone at school what had happened: I knew what
Elizabeth Frazier would say. A week later we found out Toby belonged to
an old woman who lived three blocks down and we had to return him.
Mom said it was just as well because we 'd be moving again soon.
I went with Dad to take the turtle back. Dad looked at his feet as
he told the woman not to remove the masking tape under any
circumstances. I asked her if I could visit Toby sometime. She smiled and
nodded. I returned almost every day after school to give Toby some lettuce
or tell him a story. The masking tape was still holding Toby together when
we moved a month later.