Turtles by Ted Jonathan

A kid standing several steps from the man-made lake was readying to make the running jump onto the large rock where turtles were lounging. This really bugged me because it was a given that he was up to no good, and I like turtles, the way they lazily hang out, don cool armor, and mind their own fucking business. I was about to say something to him, but he was with another fourteen or fifteen year old, and they had a pit bull . . . so I mutely walked past, continuing my first lap on the paved path around the lake, stopping a few times to look back, only to see that the kid has gone from doing shoulder rolls to trunk twists and back to shoulder rolls. He was posturing. I might not have had the balls to say anything, but he didn’t have the balls to chance that jump. His hesitation all but assured me that if he were to give it a go now he’d likely come up soaked or hurt. Hopefully, he’d crack his head on a rock. His body left afloat in the lake overnight, like that of a turtle I’d seen the day before. A turtle that I’m sure didn’t die a natural death.

I’d understand if there were girls around. He’d show the girls how he could fly, show them a turtle up close, but there weren’t any girls around. More likely he was a torturer of animals, potentially a serial killer. I could also understand if there was a sheep on the rock and he wanted to hump it, but it was a turtle. I may be a cisgender male but that doesn’t mean I’m inter-species love phobic. Okay, so he’s an every boy daredevil. I get it. Nonetheless, I’d bet this kid was well suited to become a cop who sprays Mace into the eyes of peaceful female demonstrators so that he can fondle them while arresting them for disorderly conduct. He’d make good cannon fodder. But really, like everything else, it all comes back to yours truly. Teenage boys and pit bulls always bring me down. Turtles lift my spirits.

I kept walking, counterclockwise of course. If I couldn’t turn back the hands of time I hoped to at least slow them down some. And distracted myself reading official signs: Welcome to Hudson County Nature Trails at North Hudson Park, Keep off Lake Thin Ice, and Trout Stocked Water Woodcliff Lake (stapled to a tree), sidestepping people who simply because they could were using their cell phones to take pictures of one another. While slob fishermen sat on folding chairs, hands free (or holding a smoke), next to their multiple rod set ups.

Upon completing the first of my planned three almost mile-long laps around the lake, back to what I’ll call turtle rock, I see the same fucking kid holding a turtle. “I see you worked up the nerve to make the jump,” I say. “I hope you’re gonna put that turtle back.”

“Yeah,” he says. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt the turtle.” I gave the kid no attitude and he responded in kind. Pleased with myself and feeling hopeful, I walked on.

I was too cynical. The kid might be a modern day Huck Finn–but I doubt it. I unzipped my hip sack and took out my large padded headphones and tiny ipod, listening only through one ear to stave off the tinnitus that had begun in the other. My mood had cooled so I started with a mellow but soulful compilation of artists like Glen Campbell, Dionne Warwick, and The Carpenters. . . After Campbell’s sweet and melancholy “Wichita Lineman,” came Karen Carpenter’s “Rainy Days and Mondays Always Bring Me Down,” but like I said, teenage boys and pit bulls always bring me down, so I thumbed a Lester Young playlist on my ipod and lost myself in his melodic and airborne sax.

When I reached turtle rock after my third lap the kid, his friend, and dog were no longer there. A woman holding a little girl’s hand stood by, telling her, “That’s because the turtle is upside down.” So that’s what that funky looking fleshy thing that I’d seen before was, a turtle on its back. The kid had flipped the turtle on its back. Funny thing though, I’d noticed that turtle on its back before he was on the scene, but had my prescription dark shades on and the sky had turned overcast, so I didn’t know what I was looking at. It could’ve been anything from a human brain or intestines to a live giant vagina. But I knew that the kid had to have something to do with it.

With every step, I was getting more and more pissed. When I was his age I know I could’ve made that same running jump. I was simultaneously better and less than everybody back then, and remain simultaneously better and less than everybody to this day. But back then I didn’t give a rat’s ass about turtles. Now that I couldn’t make the jump, mostly due to an overriding need for self-preservation, I had to. I needed to get into the zone. Like when I was the only kid who was able to throw the ball through the tire hole from shallow left field on day one of little league tryouts, or when I hand-snatched a horsefly mid-air. I knew I’d get both of those feats done right before I did them. I needed to access the zone to make the running jump, and set the turtle upright. Or fuck myself up trying . . . Or maybe I could find a really long branch.

Fuck the branch. Bent on making the jump I began the march back to Turtle Rock, but then realized that you can’t channel the zone, the zone channels you. So I did the next best thing, looping the Sturm und Drang of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” to psych myself to fever pitch. I was a commando. Spotting the two boys and their dog in the not too far off park, I momentarily considered calling out to them, telling the kid that maybe he could make the jump again and undo what someone did. But no, this was on me. War Pigs. Hello death.

When I got there the upside down turtle was gone! This was truly a miracle. I wouldn’t have to sacrifice my body. Especially important, since I now realized that even if I accomplished the running jump onto the rock, I’d need to make the same jump back without a running start. A feat the kid couldn’t do either. That’s when I saw that there were two large rocks submerged inches below the waterline. The kid likely took off his sneakers, rolled up his pants, and stepped over to snag a turtle. I was right all along. The posturing kid didn’t have the balls. I could’ve done the same.

Perplexed, I wondered how an upside down turtle could get off a rock. It was by the edge of the rock. Had one or more of the other turtles nudged the upside-downer into the water? Of course not, that was merely wishful thinking. I needed to know. An ordinary looking elderly couple walked towards me, the woman desperately clutching a pair of large brown stuffed animals against her chest. The husband seemed embarrassed. I made sure not to stare at them, needlessly fiddling with my headphones instead. They didn’t need a patronizing hello. A bunch of imbeciles passed before I stopped a power-walker, filled him in, and asked if he’d seen anything.

“It’s hard to believe,” he said. “But what you saw was a turtle that has only the rim of its shell. He’s very spunky and basks among the others on that rock most every day.”

“Wow!” I say. How could the shell come off?

Nodding towards the lake, he says, “Who knows what goes on down there?”

“Not me” I say. “But I sure as shit know what goes on up here.”


About the Author: Ted Jonathan is a poet and short story writer. Born and raised in the Bronx, he now lives in New Jersey. His work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies. Translations of his poetry have appeared in Russian magazines. Bones & Jokes, his most recent full-length collection of poems and short stories, has been published by NYQ Books (2009). His forthcoming collection Advice to My Unborn Son will also be published by NYQ Books.