Two Bits for the Turtle

tortoise_xing

            “As you might imagine, I was a bad child. What, you’re surprised? It wasn’t that I was impulsive, or even evil – though you might be right for thinking the latter at the moment. No, I was slow. Lead-footed. Stunted in the thinking. It took a turn in jail to free me of my devices, and now here I am.”

            “But surely you don’t mean to do harm?” someone asked.

            “Harm is something I’m curious about,” returned the man, spinning on his stool. “What’s harm? What’s it mean? What’s it to me or to you what I do to any living creature? What would it mean if I brought harm to everyone here?”

            “I don’t mean it like that…”

            “You don’t mean it all. Sit down now.”

            He scratched his head. The morning was getting on. Sun would come up, and people would try to get in for breakfast. “Still ruminating on things,” he muttered. “All that lack of thinking back when’s just led to this big thinking now.”

            “Mister, my mother needs her medication,” said a man in coveralls. The woman was maybe eighty, didn’t matter.

            “Come over here then.” He took a sip of coffee. Twirled the gun on the counter. “How old are you, madame? No, you don’t talk? Only stare? Well, let me ask your son a question. Mister, you love your mom. I saw you earlier talking to her in the booth, even though she wasn’t saying anything back. I saw you feeding her those home fries, even though most of them fell outta her mouth. Must be hard. So you tell me – you look around. All these people, and all this talk of harm. What’s it mean to you? Would you spare all these people if it meant the life of one old lady?”

            “Mister…”

            “Not my name. My name’s Aris. I know, a funny name. Some fucking nurse spelled the proper name wrong in the hospital. Only wasn’t a hospital, more like a hotel or something, and the nurse was a janitor. See how that works?” He pointed the gun at the mother’s forehead. “Listen now. You decide what’s going to happen. Pick. I have enough bullets for any sixteen people in here, pretty much all of them. I either shoot them or I shoot this lady. Your mom.”

            “You can’t…”

            “I mean to, unfortunate soul. And I mean to make you decide.”

            “There are children in here…”

            “And you can save them! It’ll be glorious.”

            The man put his fingers in his coveralls. He looked about the diner, at the people huddling in various places. He looked at the sign in the window, inviting new customers in.

            “I choose her.”

            “You don’t sound certain.”

            “Just do what you have to. If this is what you have to do…”

            “How do you know I’m going to let everyone go afterwards? Are you really sure of that?”

            “Have mercy, Mister.”

            “That’s a good one.” Aris pulled the trigger. The sound made the coffee cups clink on their hooks. The old lady stayed upright for a moment, looking no more alive or dead than she’d been the moment before the bullet had gone through her head.

            “That’s the philosophy of the thing. I’d say the rest of you believe he chose well, right, for all his blubbering? Well, let him blubber. It’s okay, truly.”

            Aris put sugar in his coffee. There was a man and his girl in the booth to the right. Behind the counter, two waitresses who looked about the same age. Fans were still running. Grill was still cooking. He could smell burnt sausage, which was a shame. There was no point in burning good meat.

            Dawn was coming. Snuck around his ankles and tugged at his socks.

            “All right you,” he said, to the man in the furthest booth. “That’s right, bring them over.”

            “No.” The man, it seemed, was just on his way through town. No other way to explain his tight jeans and his little t-shirt, or his hair. Just on his way through town, because the town was a pinhead on a map that he’d remembered from his dad’s workshop way back – a nice thing to navigate the roads by, and to bring back some memories. Only today he’d stopped for breakfast, because the kids were hungry.

            “There is just no going back from things sometimes. Look, make a deal,” said Aris. “Bring that boy and that girl over here or I shoot them both. Dead as sin. That’s part one. Bring them over now.”

            The boy was ten at least. The girl probably eight. She had black curls. He had on a jacket that looked like a suit. Their dad had his arms around them.

            “Now,” said Aris, “you kids want to play a game? It’s not a hurting game, don’t worry. There won’t be any harm in it.” They both shook their heads. “No? Kids don’t play games anymore? That’s too bad. I was going to ask which one of you could run faster to the door, and down the street. How about it, that race?” They shook their heads again.

            Aris sighed. “Maybe I play with your dad then. Well, dad. Let’s play. Go on and pick. Pick which one of these two is going to run through that door, and which one isn’t.”

            The dad was tearing up already. “Just let us go, okay. Please.”

            “How come I would do that? The game’s not finished. You always have to finish the game.”

            “Please.”

            “Don’t know any other words? Rules are simple. But I’ll add one. You don’t decide and I shoot them both. Right dead.”

            The other people in the diner shifted, as though they were going to do something about it. Aris sent a bullet at the ceiling, stopping all that. “Damn near hit a fan,” he muttered. Peered at the dad. “The boy or the girl. Pick.”

            “I won’t.” And no sooner were the words out than did he jump at Aris. The gun went off.

            “Stupid thing to do,” said Aris, as the man fell to his knees with a hole in his stomach. The gun fired again.

            The children were screaming. People in the diner were screaming. Aris put up his arms. “Hold on now! Be quiet! This is almost done. Almost done! Just have to ruminate on things a bit more, that’s all. Be at ease. We’re done. Truly.” He looked at the kids. “Listen, your dad didn’t pick. I’m sorry for him, but he didn’t play right. And for all that, game’s not finished. So if your dad’s not picking, the rest of these fine folks are going to. So what’s it to be, folks? I want each of you to point at one of these kids. Go on now. If everyone doesn’t pick, you all get the bullet and these little ones go out the door. That’s the deal.”

            Might have been the quietest the diner had been. Not just that morning, but all week, maybe even ever. Maybe even since before it was built, or people had come to this land and thrown out whoever’d been here first. Maybe even since there’d been nothing, no planet or sun, no nothing. Aris waited. And didn’t he smile, slight but getting bigger, as one hand went up after another, pointing at one child or the other, until everyone had a finger extended.

            Aris did a count. “Well that,” he said, “proves my point. You fine people, don’t feel bad. You’re still fine people, just in an unfortunate situation. That’s what my whole life’s been. One large unfortunate mishap. I thank you,” he said, cocking the gun, “for being so reasonable.”

            When he was done, he walked to the door. Outside, he shrugged and put away his gun. The Cutlass roared as he gave it gas, then shot into the street. “People are good,” he confirmed to the sunshine coming over the hill. “They’re just fine, and they’ll prove it over and over again if you let them. It’s not their fault that I’m just coming into my thoughts now, at this advanced age in my life. Should have happened sooner. Wish it had.” Ahead, a turtle was crossing the road. Aris slammed on his brakes, bringing the Cutlass to a stop about a foot from the unfortunate creature. Sun was inflaming the asphalt that it was trying to crawl over.

            Aris got out of his car and watched the turtle cross. “Take your time, son. Where are you headed, anyway?” The turtle was staring east, where the sun was rising over the hard rock. “Go ahead, little guy,” he said, leaning against the car. “Take your time. I don’t mind waiting. Got things to think on. Truly.” A bit of wind swept a dusting of sand into the sky. Aris peered into the distance, as far as he could. There was nothing there. Not one thing worth reaching out for. The sun rising up from the middle of it all didn’t change his mind on that. No, it didn’t at all. Not one bit.

70 thoughts on “Two Bits for the Turtle

  1. Excellent writing Trent, as usual. I wonder if he had a short sleeved shirt on. After all he obviously had the right to bare arms. Ha!

  2. Holy cow. I was totally gripped by this story. Excellent writing and it could be the opening scene of a movie! Wonder where Aris is off to next, what havoc he’ll wreak…

  3. I never know what to say after reading your words, Trent. I usually come up with something to make sure you know that you are making a difference in my life but it never seems like enough.

  4. It drives me nuts that you write stuff so prolific and brilliant with such depth and so many nuances – and then I can never give you feedback that adequately compliments it. And attributing one or two flowery, glowing words to work like this is just meaningless. So I’m choosing to be honest in saying sometimes I just can’t find the words to do your art justice, Trent. Maybe it just renders me speechless – which is probably the best compliment I could ever give you. xo

  5. Skillfully executed, and unpleasant. Kind of Tarantino-ish, but with more depth. I wish this kind of thing wasn’t something we actually read about in the news every few weeks.

    • Walt, thank you – and yes we do read about these things. I figure truth is still more terrifying than anything I can come up with.

      By the way, I’m a huge Tarantino fan. I think Inglorious Basterds is truly a masterpiece.

      • I keep hearing that about IG. I’m going to have to watch it again.

        By the way, I halfway thought this post would be about the turtle crossing the road in Grapes of Wrath. I keep hearing about that too. No kidding. I read it recently, and when I got to the part about the turtle I was reminded of a friend who said he stopped reading after the part about the turtle. Then I overheard two kids the other day saying the same thing.

        Just read the comment below. I wanted to stop reading, and almost did, but couldn’t.

        • Loved loved that movie… totally bugnuts crazy, but incredibly watchable. Love the acting too.

          GoW is one of my favorite books, but man you have not read that book until you see the last scene. It is a gentle, despairing moment of utter hope, completely wonky but absolutely true to the narrative. It’s so good yet crazy that it’s still entirely expected – but you don’t see it coming. What did you think of the book? What about that last scene?

          • I thought GoW was outstanding. I didn’t know it was possible to narrate the effects of a drought, for example, in such a captivating and compelling way. And I wrote in a another post about how I learned more about the history of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and “Okies” and the destructive effects of capitalism than I ever learned from any classroom or textbook. Just incredible stuff. And the scene towards the beginning where Tom Joad hitches a ride, and the conversation he has with the driver…just incredible writing. I even liked the turtle scene, which turns so many people off. Now that ending, that was bizarre. No, I didn’t see that coming at all. They don’t write ’em like that anymore. I mean seriously. I wonder if any contemporary writer could even conceive an ending like that today.

            • I think some people come up with great endings, but it’s rare that they’re memorable. Douglas Coupland wrote a book, Hey Nostradamus!, that has an ending that stays with me. I can’t remember too many others… must be telling.

  6. Still processing…
    Well written, of course. Vivid characters. Made me feel… and that’s what I’m still mulling over. I’ll be back once I’ve figured out what to say in that regard.

  7. I shared via Twitter and then had to walk away. Partially because my original comment wouldn’t post and partially because I wasn’t sure what to say.
    Your writing is so real it often makes me forget I’m reading fiction. I get to the end and have to remind myself that it’s okay I didn’t like the main character because he isn’t real… And, yet, he could be. You continue to create vibrant characters that make the reader think and feel.
    Thank you for that.
    This piece, though… to have to choose… I would go fighting because I would never pick my own life over anothers. Perhaps that would end up costing more, but that isn’t my choice to make.

    • Matticus – thank you. Making characters who are entirely fictional into some semblance of reality is kind of a trick, but it’s one that’s at the heart of fiction. I always say, I live an interesting life, but nothing compared to the lives of the characters I can see. Life is so much bigger than us individually – what we can dream is so much grander than what we are, which is basically the definition of hope. There, I’m sermonizing…

      I hope I’d go down fighting too.

  8. you are so fucking good Trentster… to make him thinking about thinking things out for the first time, thinking all the sudden he’s got it.. he gets it… and he’s sorting out his life the whole time he’s just randomly killing people in a game of “what would you sacrifice to live”….Damnnn your good! 🙂 4 thumbs up, in honor of the turtle!!!!

  9. I love reading your stories, Trent. I forget that I’m actually reading something and become fully immersed, diving in and losing time. I really hope one day to have your novel in my hands. Pages and pages of Trent 🙂

  10. Your story reminded me the recent outrage about Cecil the Lion (if you haven’t heard, some American dentist possibly illegally hunted and killed a famous lion in Zimbabwe). It seems that a lot of people were upset about a lion more than they were upset about any one of the recent mass shootings here in the US.

  11. I don’t want to compare you to some other guy…because you are nothing if not uniquely Lewin…but this story puts me in mind of tales written by a very famous, prolific horror writer for whom I anxiously await his next great read. I’m thinking of pushing him to the side of the road though, to make room for the Lewin Express to drive right down the yellow line. Damn you’re good and getting better all the time.

    • SB – you really make me blush, know that… Uniquely Lewin… kind of like the sound of that. Glad you think I’m getting better, I’m trying to tear the skin off this onion. Involves a lot of tears and cursing, but getting there. How’re you doing? Still remember your last post…

      • I’m a tough ol’ bird NB…I’m hanging in. With so much happening in the last year or so, I think a bit of the salt may have come off…so I’m learning to take things one step at a time, as they come, and not worry about the shit I can’t control. A lot still going on but the day’s still only 24 hours long and I can only do what I can do. Perhaps it’s a bit like your onion…I’m not through all the layers yet, but still working at it. That’s something. 🙂

  12. Typical you … great imagery … tense, but also in an edgy way. But why was Aris driving a Cutlass? … I’m all cheers for the turtle. The hell with Aris – regardless if he’s driving one of my favorite cares from my past.

  13. You and characters, Lewin. You give them life. You make them breathe.

    This one, in particular — I’ve got a fondness for Discord, and Aris, wrongly spelled, coffee-sipping, little-old-lady-shooting, turtle-saving Aris is no less beautiful for his horror.

    You give the world gifts in the form of people who could be the people standing right next to us, opened up so we get a glimpse of their hearts.

    Someone on here said they wouldn’t want to spend time in your mind?

    Fuck that. I’d give my eyeteeth for the chance.

    • No less beautiful for his horror… so well said Jones.

      You know, my mind is actually a pleasant place. It’s a happy place. Where the Aris’ of the world come from… I couldn’t say. There’s no spot in there that spawns them.

      And thank you Jones – as always. Your regards mean the world to me.

  14. This is entering the hall of fame for your posts. Thank you very much for this.
    Quite a fascinating character the killer. You did well. I can’t pick a particular issue to comment on seeing as I love the entire package. I’d choose this story again. You made me happy with this.

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