Tortoise [Short Story]

This is a short story by JT Cunningham.

In the place I spent my twenties in, there was this mound in the center of the business district. It was a weird sight, seeing something so green, so natural smack dab in the middle of white middle class commerce. Yet there it stood, for over a hundred years, with its wooden benches and oak trees erected to celebrate the town’s centennial year a decade ago. They were nice looking trees, tall and large, that gave good shade.

The man, whom the locals called Tom, because they really had fucking clue who he was, climbed the mound. He was an afroed neo-hippie who carried around a tortoise under his arm. The tortoise always seemed happy, being carried around and fed spinach and lettuce. He always wore a red bandana on his head, a brown bomber jacket, and a black t-shirt underneath a blue button-up. He wore khakis and brown oxfords, and a matching belt. Folks said he came from out East, New York or New Jersey or Connecticut. That he was educated at Princeton or Dartmouth or something. That he went into stock broking and quit after five years of impeccable job service. The best in the business, they called him in one magazine or another. One fellow said it was Time, another claimed it was in USA Today. But nobody really knew, I figured out. Nobody knew who this guy was or what he did going up to that mound everyday. Everyday at noon, he climbed that mound and sat among the trees with his tortoise. And nobody knew the tortoise’s name, either. The kids called him Gertrude, some called him Fellini, and still others considered him Martin.

There was this baker’s wife, Teresa, who always left bread out for the kids. She was a kindly soul, thirty-four years old and thin. She had this way about her that suggested a facade of some sort, and for the longest while I really couldn’t tell what it was. But it was her smile that eventually gave it away for me. It was crooked. It was supposed to extend from ear-to-ear, wide and cheerful. But it hardly ever did that. No, it mostly stayed put, content to lie to everybody. But when it did come out to its full size, the sun looked away in shame. It had nothing compared to that mug. And the only time I ever saw it was when she heard stories about Tom. When she saw Tom carrying his tortoise past the bakery to the mound. I saw that smile break out of containment and feel the warm glow of genuine interest on its breast. I always wanted to ask her about it, why she never really smiled for real, but something told it was better left unasked, unmentioned. After all, she had a decent life. Decent husband, decent occupation, decent family, and decent wages.

My mother taught me about luck from the day I popped out of her. She taught me about black cats and walking under ladders and breaking glass. But perhaps the thing about this whole luck business she stressed the most was the old penny myth. That you needed to flip it over if it was tails-up. That picking it up truly meant something good was bound to happen. In most ways, the penny was the cornerstone of my mother’s belief system in the universe. There were rules. Rules that didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, but rules nonetheless. There was someone up there making the rules, enforcing them, making sure they weren’t broken. To my mother, luck wasn’t blind or based on coincidence. It was cosmic evidence of some higher being. And to her, that being looked like Abraham fucking Lincoln. So she made me keep a penny in my pocket, and when I got older my wallet, at all times. Said she did the same thing with her purse and her life was blessed. She said all that, even after the divorce, the cancers, the withdrawals, the addictions, the pain, the suffering, the child-rearing, the punches to the gut she and everybody around her endured. My mother believed in the penny, and she wanted me to as well. But as I got older, my belief in the penny ceased to be. It was a fucking piece of copper not even worth what it advertised. There was nothing to the penny. Believing in a set of cosmic rules was fine for my mother, but there was nothing suggestive of the sort to me. As far as I was concerned, the quarter was the only coin worth thinking about. At least with that you can afford a stick of gum or something. But, I suppose my mother hammered herself into me so much as a kid that I was left with an indent of her personality somewhere deep within me. So I carry a penny around with me anyway. I carried it in my wallet and didn’t let it fall out or accidentally get deposited it at the bank. I kept it and I made sure it’s safe. Well, except for the instance where I lost it. I was on my way up the mound to look at the city, to look at what there was to see, when Tom came walking up with that tortoise of his. I’d never spoken to Tom, nor him to me. He was a local legend and I was a local nobody. Strange pairing, the two of us. But when he reached the summit, he said nothing to me. He sat down on his bench and placed the tortoise next to him and pulled out a harmonica from his jacket pocket. It was late November and beginning to chill over. He blew into the harmonica and started playing an old ragtime tune, and I saw the tortoise bob its head up and down to the music. I widened my eyes and watched as this man and his reptile performed, not for me, but for themselves, this strange little dance of theirs. There was no reason for it, I knew then as I know now, but yet he did it all the same. He could’ve done it in his house, in his backyard, but he specifically chose this exact spot for one reason or another. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the whole thing, but there it was, happening right in front of me. After Tom finished playing, he turned around to me and smiled. His teeth were perfectly straight, perfectly white. That natural hint of yellow the rest of us have was completely absent from his smile. “Would you mind?” he asked. “Mind what?” I asked back. “Got a penny?” I nodded and pulled out my wallet. I had my penny with me and handed it to him. He smiled broadened and he slipped the coin into his pocket along with his harmonica. Then he picked up the tortoise and went back down the mound. Now, right then I asked myself, “did I just got fucking swindled by a homeless man?” I asked myself, “what the hell just happened?” And for a good long while, I couldn’t come up with an answer to either. But then I passed by Teresa’s place on my way to the post office to buy stamps. She was setting out bread on the window sill as she usually did on Thursdays, and I saw a necklace hanging in front of her, the main piece of it being the penny I had given to Tom. I knew it was my penny because of how brightly it shone in the early afternoon sun. I stopped underneath the window and said hello. Teresa smiled that crooked smile of hers. “How are you, Jake?” I told her I was fine, how was she? “Doing well, I suppose.” I asked her about the penny. Where did she get it from? It looked nice. She took the penny in hand and looked at me. Then she said she had to go and left the window. I knew that whatever happened next, to her or to Tom, would end poorly for the both of them. But mostly I just wondered why the fuck Tom couldn’t just use his own goddamn penny for his own goddamn affair. Why get me involved? Me and my poor penny?

They killed him at midnight the next week. Strung him up from a tree on the mound and left him swinging there for the world to see. I visited the corpse the next day to see if it was really true. And yes, yes it was. Tom was gently rocking back and forth in the cold December morning, his eyes popped out and his brown skin turned blue and black. I went home, grabbed a butcher’s knife that my uncle, who just got out of Sing Sing, gave me as an early Christmas gift, and went back to the tree. The tortoise was sitting there, on the bench, next to the harmonica and the penny necklace. I got on the bench and cut through the ropes, let Tom’s body fall to the ground. I removed the ropes from his neck and sat down next to the tortoise. He looked at me and I looked at him. Painted on the tortoise’s shell read the words “DEAD NIGGERS HERE” and I made a note to wash that off before the day was out. Then we both looked at the dead man before us. I picked up the penny necklace and put it around Tom’s neck. Then I carried him down the mound and left him on the front of the county courthouse. I went back up to get the tortoise and carried him home, along with the harmonica and the knife. I placed him in the bathtub and ran the water. I covered the shell in soap and rubbed off the hate. But the hate would remain, forever staining the mound. I bought some lettuce and spinach, what the tortoise liked, and learned to play the harmonica. I built a little desert in my backyard during the summer months and let the tortoise, who I called Fellini, wander around. I visited Tom’s grave every once and a while to tell him how Fellini was doing, and how I was getting along with the harmonica. I never found out why Tom had come here or why he had a tortoise or why he played harmonica up on the mound. I never knew who he was or where he came from or why he fell in love with the baker’s wife. But he mattered more to me than anyone else in that hick town combined. I can’t say why. Maybe it was the penny. Maybe there were rules after all. Maybe Abraham fucking Lincoln was watching us from up on high. If that’s the case, I have to apologize to my mother. But I doubt I’ll ever have to.


J.T. Cunningham has worked as a glorified secretary, glorified telemarketer, and office assistant, but mostly considers himself a writer. His short story, “Under the Sky”, won third in the Dakota County Teen Short Story Contest 2014. A portion of his play, “Losing Angels”, was featured in his Scholar of Distinction in Theatre Award, presented by the Perpich Center for Performing Arts. He also wrote the one-act play, “The Five Thousand”, for the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival.
He is pursuing a B.A. in English with a creative writing concentration at Hamline University, and writes for Odyssey Online.
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