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 laughed. 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 eyebrows. 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 on him. ''It is a big turtle,'' Mom said. ''I wonder who owns it.'' We stared at him. ''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 the backyard. 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.