Fiction, Vol. 7.1, March 2013
Almost one hundred fifty years ago, a small Mexican boy found a tortoise wandering the streets of his Mexican village. The tortoise was just a hatchling, and the boy carried him home easily. He named the tortoise Gustavo. Four decades later, the Mexican gave Gustavo to his grand-nephew as a birthday present. The grand-nephew, who changed Gustavo’s name to Paco, grew up and gave the tortoise in exchange for his first car. The car dealer kept the name Paco but gave him to a drug lord in exchange for his life. And so the tortoise and his story went, year after year, from person to person, name to name, town to city to suburbs and across the Rio Grande. Somehow, back in the early ’80s, he found his way to Barry, who named him Clive for reasons he never explained to me. Clive, the giant tortoise, had been with Barry more than a decade by the time I met him.
Barry had always collected turtles. He started getting them from customers who couldn’t pay for their dime bags. He kept them in a kiddie pool on his sun porch, at least a dozen in there at any one time. A handful of box turtles, a few snappers, a slider, a river cooter.
Barry mostly kept Clive to himself, but if you hung around him long enough, he’d take you past the kiddie pool of turtles and through his house to the backyard and introduce you. He liked to roll a pre-sale joint and blow smoke in Clive’s ancient face while feeding him heads of lettuce. You didn’t even have to bend over. When that Mexican first found Clive, he was as only as big as a man’s head. When I met Clive, he was slightly smaller than my sofa.
I hadn’t heard from Barry since college, and I didn’t really smoke anymore unless someone else was carrying. So there was no reason I would ever know that Barry had died last month, except that, for some reason, I inherited Clive.
I just bought this house last year, one of those overblown McMansions some rich person built and then abandoned in the housing bust. I paid almost nothing for this minor palace and its two-acre lot that backs up practically into swamp. Whether I liked it or not, it was a perfect home for Clive.
The guy who delivered him called my cell about ten minutes before he backed the truck into my driveway. I couldn’t stop him. Said he was bound by law to drop off the tortoise I’d inherited. I finally gave in and helped him guide Clive into my backyard, the lush lawn half-ruined by all my gear.
I collect refuse and castoffs and estate auction lots, make my living snapping up the flotsam of lives lived too fast and then sell them off later. I have two sports cars and a pickup in my backyard. The sports cars were drug runners, stripped by the cops; one is on cinder blocks waiting for new rims, new door panels, and upholstery. The pickup is a massive dual king cab—white that goes yellow with pollen when wind blows in from the wrong direction.
As the delivery guy dropped the ramp on the trailer and unlatched the gate, I leaned against his truck and shook my head.
“And just what the hell am I supposed to do with this tortoise, man?”
“Beats me, amigo. Maybe the same thing you do with all your other stuff back here.”
“Nothing back here is really mine, “ I said. “I just buy and sell things.”
“Well this here turtle is yours,” he said, “so now you got the one thing, anyways.”
“Not really,” I told him. “I still think of him as Barry’s.”
I watched Clive amble down the ramp and into the yard, his neck long and his head swinging as he sniffed the air. No kiddie pools full of little turtles, no pot growing in a greenhouse.
“Barry’s no one,” I said.
I have this neighbor, one of those perfect fantasies, the girl next door who wanders over one evening for a dip in your pool. She’s actually twenty-three, but she still lives with her parents. They have the pool, not me, and she moved into their cabana after college. Her name is Tiffany, honest to god. Sun-bleached hair and a faint spray of freckles on her cheekbones and these huge green eyes—if you looked into her eyes, directly into them, you would kill anyone she asked you to and never question why.
The day she came over in mid-June, she was wearing cut-offs and a bikini top, her hair still wet from the pool. I never asked her why she rang my doorbell—she just said hey and smiled at me, those green eyes flashing with their own light, and I was too scared of screwing up the fantasy to ask what she wanted. I didn’t know what else to do with her, so I did what Barry would have done: I took her through the house to the backyard and I let her ride Clive. She kept shouting, “Ooh, he feels so bumpy!” She meant against the insides of her thighs—I tried not to think where else.
Afterward, Tiffany took a beer from me and sat at my patio table. I lit a fire in my terra cotta brazier, even though it was June and the air was sticky. The smoke kept the mosquitos at bay, and we spent the night tossing apple wedges into the yard.
When she finished her beer, she kicked her feet up on my patio table, her toned thighs orange in the light from the brazier, and she dug a thin baggy out of her shorts. She held a joint up like it was the answer to everything. She leaned into the fire and lit the joint, passed it to me. Clive ambled over and rested his wrinkled head on my knee and I exhaled into his face, just like the old days. But here was bikini-topped Tiffany beside me in the hot Texas evening, her long pool-bleached hair, and it was nothing like the old days.
Two days later I came home from a scavenge on an abandoned home and found a paper grocery sack full of snap beans, carrots, and knobby cucumbers. A note inside read “These cukes remind me of Clive’s shell!” in wide, curly purple ink. And a P.S.: “I grew these myself.” Then a string of exes and ohs.
I unloaded my truck then carried my ladder into the backyard, leaned it against the tall brick wall, and peeked over at Tiffany’s yard. Between my wall and her cabana spread a wide garden in neat rows, a lot of tomato plants, fat cabbages, other plants I didn’t recognize. Inside the cabana, Tiffany’s lights were on. I tried to determine which windows were her bedroom, which the bathroom, but then she called to me from the pool.
I dropped behind the wall, my fingers on the edge, and waited, but I heard the slosh of her leaving the water. I peeked back over the wall. “Hey,” I said, nothing else in my head, but before I realized what was happening, I’d followed with “Do you like margaritas?”
She changed from her orange one-piece into a bright green sundress, her shoulders red from the sun, her hair still wet. I put on dark jeans and new cowboy boots, which I never wore, and we went into the city for crab legs and Corona, filled up on battered fish nuggets and seasoned fries, gritty pop-blues pounding in the restaurant.
After dinner, we came back to my place. I’d thought about trying for a swim in her pool, maybe some skinny-dipping if her parents were out of town, but she wanted to see Clive. He ambled to her as we came through the back gate, started craning his neck immediately. She cooed and petted his beak but he snapped at her.
“What the hell?” she said. She stepped backward and tried to circle around him, her hands behind her back, but he followed her like a bull ready to charge. “Seriously,” she said, “get this fucking turtle off me.”
“He thinks you have pot,” I said. “He just wants to get high.”
“Well, you’ve got him trained, don’t you?” She reached into her purse and pulled out a pipe and baggy. “Next thing you’ll tell me he wants to see me naked.”
Tiffany kept bringing me food, though the paper sacks were getting lighter. Sometimes she’d toss in a dime with a sticky note that said, “For Clive.” Some afternoons, I’d stand on the ladder on my wall chatting to her; some evenings she’d come over to drink and smoke and throw food into the yard.
I was getting worried, though, about all the stuff we were tossing back there among the cars and dishwashers and shop tools. Some of it was going to seed, I was sure of it, and was sprouting back there in that lush former swampland. Grapevines were crawling up a tree trunk; beanstalks leaned against the poles for a funeral awning; a strawberry patch was trying to take root along the back wall where the kudzu was growing over from the wilderness beyond.
Some days, when Tiffany wasn’t around, I looked into her garden and tried to understand how she kept everything so confined. All those rows, everything where it belonged. In my yard—Clive’s yard, really—the swamp was reclaiming the suburbs.
One night a few weeks later, I invited Tiffany out for drinks. I told her it was my birthday, though I was lying. Anything for a special occasion; anything to get away from Clive’s backyard. I took her to this bar I’d heard about, the Belly Boat. It was new, as much aquarium as bar, with a huge heated pool and swim-up bar on one side. Inside, everything was lit with blue neon, the top floor visible from the bottom through those thick glass blocks like you’d wall a shower with. I had a ten-by-ten foot stack of those blocks, six feet high, in one of my spare bedrooms, rescued from a boarded-up plumbing and bathroom business. In the bar, you could see people’s feet pass overhead but you couldn’t see up anyone’s skirt.
We started with top-shelf margaritas and sipped through straws as we walked around the bar. The central staircase wrapped around a blue acrylic tube of tropical fish, spiny lionfish and bright discs of angelfish carousing in the tube. After our third margarita each, we slipped outside into the night air, the aroma of refineries and fish markets heady but the breeze clarifying, and I peeled off my boots and rolled up my jeans so we could sit on the edge of the hot pool with our feet in the water. The swim-up bartender talked us into a flight of tequila, not just shots but a taste test of the premium brands. The earth tilted. My feet swelled in the water and my shoulders unknotted. Tiffany leaned against me and giggled, her hand on my thigh. I ordered another round.
That same night, Clive attacked us. We’d taken our time on the way home, the windows down so the wind could keep me focused on the highway. I drove barefoot—I’d left my boots at the bar—and we stopped along the way several times just to lean out the car doors and catch our breath. The last time, we stopped at a liquor store just locking up and Tiffany talked her way inside. Standing barefoot at the register, the cashier pissed but eying Tiffany’s tits anyway, I let her line up three bottles of Jurado tequila on the counter, a hundred bucks a bottle. At the bar, they’d been almost twenty dollars a shot, so I felt like I was getting a great deal.
We stayed up all night, sitting in Clive’s backyard, sipping hundred-dollar tequila on ice and throwing heads of lettuce. Clive didn’t seem to like it, thrashing his head to bat the lettuce around like soccer balls, but that just sent Tiffany into fits of laughter, tears on her cheeks, and she started kicking the heads around the back yard and shouting GOAAAALLL every time she got a head of lettuce into the open horse trailer where Clive slept.
That’s when Clive charged her, snapping his dinosaur jaws. He’s fast for a tortoise, especially one his size, but he’s still a tortoise and Tiffany kept away from him easily. She thought it was a game—running in figure eights and laughing high and insane, her head back, her hair sweaty. But Clive was getting angrier, and started pawing the grass like a bull. He charged the concrete bird bath and shattered the pedestal. He charged one of the big live oaks and scarred the bark with his shell. He charged the big white pickup with his head retracted and dented the front fender.
I’d had enough. Tiffany had had enough—she was standing in the middle of the yard, panting, staring at Clive, who had not had enough because he was banging his head into the earth.
With Tiffany as bait and me running alongside him, we managed to get him into his trailer, where he banged the walls. Lights came on at Tiffany’s house and I worried her parents would call the cops. I squatted in the yard, the light from my own security lamps yellow on the pickup fender, and inspected the dents. Tiffany was scowling.
“That fucking turtle needs to mellow out,” she said. She walked away and I worried she was leaving, but she stopped at the patio table and poured another shot of the hundred-dollar tequila. She slammed the shot and caught her breath. She said, “You should get that turtle high.”
I got two ladders, one for each side of the wall, and she hopped over then came back with a whole plant, ripped from the ground roots and all, holding it in her fist like a dumbbell. The leaves were thick and hairy and they glittered from all the sticky crystals in the flowers. I could smell the pungent scent of them in the hot night air.
“You owe me, like, a thousand bucks for this one,” she said. She wasn’t laughing anymore, wasn’t even smiling. She stopped at the table to pound another shot.
“What about all the tequila?”
“We’ll call it seven fifty, then,” and she took the last bottle and tucked it under her arm.
She didn’t want to open the tailgate, so I took the stem from her and stuck the whole plant over the side, into the dark. Clive rushed the gate and I leapt back but Clive jumped for it, his front legs slamming on the gate and his neck as long as I’d ever seen it, he head bobbing out over the gate like an old man’s cock. He caught the head of the plant in his beak and nearly pulled my shoulder out of joint. He stood there, his head over the gate, munching, his eyes squeezing into narrow diamonds—the goddamn thing was smiling, I swear it.
I offered Tiffany a computer from a stash I’d gotten cheap from a Houston company that was upgrading its systems, then I offered her a load of kitchen supplies from a bankrupt restaurant I’d bought and stripped, then I offered her the cash I got from selling silver I’d filtered from batches of used photo processing fluids: five thousand dollars altogether. I wanted to buy her plants whole and transplant them to my yard. But she worried I didn’t have the set-up to camouflage them, and besides, she said, too much weed in one neighborhood would attract attention. I offered her one of the sports cars in the backyard. No deal. She sold me one plant at a time, a thousand bucks a plant, to feed Clive each week.
She stopped coming around. “That fucking turtle creeps me out,” she said. I reminded her how much she’d enjoyed riding him, but she just shook her head. “If he was my turtle, I’d probably be more understanding. But he’s your goddamn problem.” I offered her more tequila, cases of Corona, an antique chaise from an estate sale. But I never saw her except to buy the plants, never heard her call to me from the pool across the wall, never saw her in her cabana at night, even when the lights were on.
It went like this for two months. I blew through more than ten thousand dollars. Even with repossessed cars and a smallish house I’d managed to flip, I was barely breaking even. I started scanning new sources—rummage sales from shuttered middle schools full of old desks and rows of metal lockers. Fridges down at the dump I could drain the Freon from and sell to auto repair shops. I drove across the bay and wandered around San Jacinto College, eying the bike racks, wondering how to get away with stealing them.
But each week Clive got worse. He would tear through a plant and spend a few days chomping on leafy greens and crunchy fruits by the bushel, but toward the end of the week he’d start lowering his head, pawing at the grass, banging against tree trunks.
And the plant life was closing in, the kudzu advancing and all those little seedlings spiraling off into tangled vines or thickening into trunks. I cut them back or uprooted them but they kept growing, shrinking the yard, caging Clive in.
In late August I called Tiffany for an early plant, but she didn’t answer. I left our coded message, “I’m looking for some tomatillos,” but she never called back. The next day I tried again. I sent text messages, left voice mail, even e-mailed her a photo of Clive lounging in the afternoon sun: “He needs you.” I climbed the ladder, stepping on vines that lay against the rungs to peer over the wall. Tiffany was nowhere. That weekend, I hopped the wall and left a hand-written note on her cabana door. I clipped a few leafy stems as I left, tossed them to Clive to tide him over.
The next day, the note was gone, but still no word from Tiffany. Clive was getting restless. He’d started scraping his shell against the brick wall, and that morning he stood there with his head withdrawn, tapping the lip of his shell against the mortar.
I climbed over and looked up the long lawn at the big house, the whole estate silent. I walked around the cabana and pressed my face against all the windows, but the curtains were drawn, the glass dark even with my hands cupped around my face. I tried the door. It was unlocked and it swung in a half inch. I knocked, louder and louder until I checked over my shoulder, the big house still quiet. I pulled the door shut and crept into the garden, crouching between the rows of tomatoes where the pot was hiding. I put my fist around one of the stems, felt it solid in the earth.
I couldn’t do it. I went back home. Clive was circling the yard, agitated. He knocked his shell against the outside of his trailer, pawed at the grass. He nosed at the cucumber I’d brought him from the garden but only ate a few bites before wandering off again.
I called Tiffany again but it went straight to voice mail.
That night, I climbed the wall and tried the knob again. It was still unlocked. I looked around in the dark, the pool lights dancing in the live oaks, but there was no sign of anyone paying any attention to me. I left the door and walked up the lawn, beside the house, to the gate in their front wall. It was locked, but from inside I could unlock it. I went back to the garden and pulled up a pot plant, then carried it up through their gate and around to my own.
The air was a bit cooler and Clive was more sluggish. More manageable. I held the pot plant out and Clive sauntered after me. I led him up through the gate and paused. He nipped at the plant as I scanned the front lawns. Then I led him around through Tiffany’s gate and down past the pool. He stopped at the edge of the garden, bent his head toward the rows, but I waved my plant at him and got him going again, up onto the little porch of the cabana, through Tiffany’s door, into her small living room.
The switch by the door lit a half-dozen lamps scattered around the room. A small futon in floral all-weather upholstery, that antique chaise I’d given her, a bamboo-and-glass coffee table, a flat screen TV and a bookshelf full of DVDs. A few statues, African and Asian and faux-Paleolithic. Clive’s claws clacked against the bamboo floor, dug small divots in the soft wood. I tossed the pot plant onto the big sisal rug under the coffee table and he followed it to chew quietly while I wandered the cabana. A small desk with a closed laptop, a bistro table and two wire chairs, a kitchenette with a mini fridge and a refrigerated wine cooler full of vodka and beer. The bathroom was pale blue, tiny flowers painted on the shower tiles. Her orange one-piece hung from the towel rod. It was still damp.
The bedroom, a simple double bed with pale pink sheets that looked satiny in the light. Six thick pillows stacked against the headboard. I slid my hand into the sheets, cool and soft, pushed my nose into the pillows that smelled of citrus shampoo. I opened the wardrobe and touched all her clothes, opened her dresser and sorted through all her panties and bras. Clive grunted from the living room and I heard his shell knock against the glass of the coffee table. I left the panty drawer open and went to him. He was standing with his front legs against the bookshelf full of DVDs, sniffing at a wooden African goddess on the top shelf. I took it down and turned it in my hands. It had a false bottom; inside was a tightly rolled baggie containing almost an ounce of pot in thick, tight buds. I stuffed the baggie in my pocket and replaced the statue.
In the mini fridge, I found a stash of apples and I tossed two of them onto the floor for Clive. He followed me into the kitchenette instead and tried to bite my hand, then my pocket. I pushed him away and took a beer from the cooler and slapped it open against the counter, then reached in again and took one of the bottles of vodka. I took a plastic bowl from a drying rack by the sink and set it on the floor, poured the beer into the bowl and called Clive over, patted his head and rubbed his neck. “You need new vices,” I told him. He sniffed the bowl of beer, wandered back to the living room where he’d left the stripped stem of the plant. He gnawed on the wood. “Seriously,” I told him, “you are just too damned old for the habits you have.”
I stepped outside, unscrewed the vodka, drank from the bottle. I walked through the garden and pulled another pot plant, then I tossed it into the cabana. Clive was squatted on the rug with his scaly legs pulled against his shell like a hockey goalie. I left the lights on and pulled the door shut, climbed the wall, the glass of the vodka bottle scraping against the bricks.
I drove out to a corner store and bought a pack of Zig-Zags for the first time in maybe a decade, then I sat in my car rolling a joint by the light of the gas pump awning, the vodka bottle in the seat beside me. In the western distance, I could see the thin spire of the San Jacinto monument lit up in the night sky. I watched it from across the bay, held up the joint to match it, two white lines in the dark. I made a fist in the shape of Clive, stuck out my thumb for his head and held it upside-down over the top of the monument, like Clive was smoking the obelisk. Then I shook my fist out and lit my own joint.
I called Tiffany again, got her voice mail again. I said, “I need to tell you this. I got Clive from a guy I used to know. His name was Barry, and he was my pot guy back in college. Barry got Clive from a customer, some woman named Gwen, but I never got the whole story there. Gwen got Clive from her ex-husband Herman, who’d gotten him from a trucker passing through from Des Moines.”
And so on, all the way back to the village in Mexico. These things are as important to remember as they are to let go.
It was close to midnight when I drove away from the city, east along I-10 until I was clear of the bay. I turned off at some farm to market road, aimed south to the coast. I ran out of road just a few hundred yards from the beach but I gunned the engine and tore into the dunes, the vodka cracking on my elbow then disappearing under the seat. I parked almost into the water, the front tires sinking into the wet sand. I rolled another joint.
In the dark, the sand looked blue, the Gulf of Mexico black. The beach was barren: no seaweed, no driftwood, not even the trash and charred logs from beach camps. I walked the shoreline for a bit, scanning for seashells, but it was too dark to see any. The moon was gone and the tide was going out. Everything was receding. I finished the vodka bottle and threw it into the Gulf.
At dawn my phone rang and I let it. I heard the chirp that said I had voice mail. I knew who it was. A minute later it rang again. I let it. The sky was pink and the tide was coming in. Soon the water would be up to my toes. Soon it would be up over the front tires of my car. I sat barefoot in the cold sand and waited for the sun, for the Gulf, for the seashells, for the driftwood and the beach trash, for the vodka bottle, for everything to come back to me.