Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Turtle By Any Other Name...

These days, when I’m not consumed with the business-y tasks of having a book published, or writing short pieces, or reading, or obsessively editing my most recently finished novel, or indulging in other human tasks like eating, drinking, or entertainment... for fun, sometimes I work on my story collection. The idea came from a Willa Cather quote (she has the BEST quotes), and it goes like this:

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”

And so I started thinking about what those stories might be, those archetypal frameworks for fiction, and I came up with things like Boy Meets Girl or Boy Grows Up. I began these stories to use the archetypes but upend them in modern settings. The stories build and relate to each other in ways that also will build as the collection progresses. But I’m stuck on a turtle. Specifically, naming a turtle. Usually when I can’t name a character, I just let it sit for a while and something eventually comes. For this turtle, nothing seems to fit. I’ll tell you about him. He is old, reliable and slow. He is the sole and best companion for an elderly woman. He is brownish and wrinkled. He is loved.

So here’s the first few pages of the story and please, if you have any suggestions for a name, send me a note.

Human Stories, Number Three                                                       
Woman Suffers Loss of Friend
            “Goddamn, disgusting pigs.” Mrs. Hallowicz bent to retrieve an empty beer bottle from the place where it was wedged between two soggy fence posts. Clutching the glass until her knuckles turned white, she peered through the gaping hole at the Gleesons’ house.
            “No time to mow the lawn,” she growled. “Grass knee-high in some places, chairs covered in soot.” She walked around to where her garbage containers were kept, near the front gate on a cement slab. “Workmen here for three weeks, pounding and yelling, running that goddamn saw all hours, and for what?”
            A silver car paused at the Moores’ house, three down from Mrs. Hallowicz’s, then continued down the quiet street. The scene caused a momentary pause in Mrs. Hallowicz’s diatribe. Curiosity always trumped complaining, the latter something she had ample opportunity for, the former piqued very infrequently.
            Her gravelly voice picked up where she had left off. “To finish the garage, she says. For parties, for our kids and their friends. Loud-mouthed brats, all of them. Finish your yard work, I say!”
            The bottle made a loud thump at the bottom of the trash container, which gave Mrs. Hallowicz some meager sense of satisfaction. Slowly she walked to her backyard, touching the side of the house occasionally for reassurance and support.
            “Those women with their plates of food, all those loud meetings during the day. Baseballs over my fence for years, kids yelling. Goddamn Gleesons.”
            One corner of the yard was enclosed with chicken coop wire, a project Mrs. Hallowicz’s only son had completed twenty-six years ago, before he moved to New Mexico. Who moves to New Mexico, Mrs. Hallowicz wanted to know at the time, and over the years, she still hadn’t found an adequate answer to her question.
            From her apron pocket, she pulled a sheath of cool lettuce leaves. Folding the leaves in half, she pushed them into one of the openings in the wire and waited.
            A grayish snout followed by a long, wrinkled neck. Finally, the shiny eyes, full of wisdom and patience.
            “Hello, you old thing,” Mrs. Hallowicz said.
            The turtle was faded and slow, the color of dirt. He meandered towards the lettuce, which she had dropped in the corner of the pen, where the grass had expired from the constant grabbing and chewing. Then, inexplicably, he stopped. This was one of the things she appreciated most about him, his unpredictability. He raised his head, extended the wrinkly neck, its skin so similar to her own, and turned from side to side, listening, Or smelling. She couldn’t be sure. She only knew, after years of watching him, that he was very, very smart.
            “What is it?” she asked, craning her own neck towards the Gleesons’. “Did that racket keep you up?”
            The turtle turned his snout towards her, the retracted a bit into his shell.
            “I know,” she said, her voice low and purring. “I know.”
            She sat for a while then, listening to the distant voices of her neighbors, watching the turtle as he remained motionless and then, after some time, continued his slow trek towards the sheaths of lettuce. When he finally lowered his gray head and his mouth gaped to take in the watery offering, she exhaled with relief. 
            “That’s a good boy, ­­­­­­­­­­________.”


  1. i think his name is Lucas. he looks like Lucas to me. say it out loud. it sounds good with the soft and hard letters. i wonder what mrs. hallowicz will do next? i like her lettuce in her apron. i like that it is cool. i keep peculiar things in my apron but i don't think i've ever had lettuce in there.

  2. 'Good Boy' seems most appropriate.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka