Mark Smith

If the kids want to mess with Mother Nature and her creations, fine. But leave me out of it.

As if it weren't weird enough to be trying to put a snapping turtle the size of a manhole cover into a flimsy plastic dry-cleaning bag, the plan after that seemed to involve transferring the beast to a shopping cart they had dragged from the supermarket several blocks away.

My wife and son and I were going for one of our tedious afternoon trips to the local swimming pool. Not exactly my idea of fun, I might quickly add, being dragged into the cold water every day to get shivering wet with a bunch of screaming kids peeing in the pool. Then, to witness the bizarre and cruel spectacle of these kids dicking around with this turtle, and the thing getting obviously more pissed off every minute. I stood there watching, dumbstruck, thinking that it would serve these kids right to have this monster bite off one of their fingers or whatever. My wife and son stepped up beside me.

"Hey!" said my wife. "What are those kids doing?" Though she could see what they were doing as well as I could.

"I think they're trying to put a snapping turtle into a dry- cleaning bag," I said. "Of course, I could be wrong."

"Wow, Dad," said my kid. "That's a big turtle." Which isn't as dumb a comment as it sounds since he's only four. And it was a big turtle. Biggest fucking turtle I ever saw. At least a foot across its gnarled shell and weighing, I would guess, twenty, twenty-five pounds. A noble beast, actually, something like a natural treasure. Not that I'd know a natural treasure if it bit me on the dick. Still, I appreciated that turtle. I felt sorry for it being dragged out of its element by this bunch of cretinous kids.

I felt like I ought to do something to stop them from terrorizing the thing though by all rights it ought to have been them who was scared. I'm absolutely sure that I would never have gone screwing around with an animal that big and mean when I was their age, which I judged to be around seven or eight. On the other hand, these kids were a bad element. I'd seen them abandoned to their own devices in the park on more than one occasion. Residents, no doubt, of the trailer park down on Congress Avenue by the park at Live Oak where the bums hang out passing quarts of Colt 45. Hell, for all I knew, those bums were their parents.

So I finally decided that I had some kind of moral obligation to stop these kids from killing this turtle.

"Hey, kids," I yelled. "Don't do that."

The oldest boy, a lanky, dirty urchin dressed only in dingy swimming trunks, glowered up at me from his crouched position. The other kids turned cold, stupid eyes on me. Obviously they weren't used to having adults telling them what to do.

"Why not?" said the boy.

"That thing'll bite your finger off." Now I didn't really care about those kids or their smudgy fingers and anyway, I could tell that this sluggish old reptile was in little danger of biting anyone. In the first place, they were handling the thing by the tail and shell, which I seem to remember hearing is the way you are supposed to handle snapping turtles if you have to handle them at all. In the second place, the kids seemed to be sure enough of themselves that they couldn't get hurt, though that could have just been street smarts. After all, they were trying to put the thing in a dry- cleaning bag and a grocery cart. What kind of outdoorsmanship is that, for Christ's sake?

"Aw, we ain't been bit yet," sneered the boy. I guess this made some kind of logical sense to him.

"That's why we're holding it by the tail," said another child, a girl I'd often seen hanging around the pool trying to chum up to the life guards.

"What're you going to do with it?" asked my wife.

"Take it home," shrugged one of the kids. Stupid question. Of course, every home ought to have at least one viscious reptile lurking around under the furniture or sleeping under the car.

"Keep it for a pet," said the girl.

"Daddy," my son piped up. "Can we get a turtle like that for a pet?"

I laughed and touseled his hair. Right, I thought, my kid, who's deathly afraid of the neighbors' fox terrier that's about as ferocious as the Pillsbury doughboy, is going to take a snapping turtle, of all damned things, home and feed it -- what? Purina Turtle Chow?

"Where are your parents, anyway?" I asked. A question that had been on my mind for weeks. Just then, as if on cue, a woman's voice boomed up behind us: "What the hell are you doing with that thang?" I turned to see the mother stepping carefully across the pebbled parking lot on her bare feet. She was hugely obese and wore a flowered bathing suit. She looked identical to the girl, who seemed only a scale model of her mother -- like those dolls from the Ukraine, or some damned place, that fit one inside the other.

"Takin' it home," snarled the boy, shooting daggers at this woman who must have been his mother, too, since he also looked like her. Probably his mother and his aunt, too, I thought. That way he gets those genes from both sides.

"You let go of that thang rat this minute, you hear me, boy!"

"I ain't," yelled the boy, still holding the turtle's jagged tail. The other children -- only two that I could count, though I could have sworn there had been more -- nervously shifted their eyes from the woman to the boy. They seemed to be trying to figure out which one of the two was the least likely to get crazy enough to hurt someone.

The turtle seemed oblivious to the whole controversy. It sat on the ground as solid as a fire hydrant, a mass of twigs, dry leaves and dirt lodged behind its claws from being dragged along the ground up from the creek. Occasionally, it would snap its beaked mouth suddenly and erratically from side to side or over its huge back shell. I understood completely. Why fucking bother? Easier to get dragged along by the tail by someone else than to put up a fight. What good did it get you anyway? Bide your time and look for your chance to make a getaway.

So I stood there at the edge of the parking lot, siding with the turtle against all odds, until my wife pulled on the towel draped over my shoulder and said, "Come on, let's go."

I glanced at the turtle once more. I felt like I ought to make some kind of stand. Go down into the creek bed and stage a heroic rescue. Intimidate the kids and their mother until they fled. But who would really do that, except for an animal rights activist or something? And I'll bet even the most hardcore Earth Firsters might back off if they got a load of this charming family.

"Fuck it," I muttered under my breath and fell in step behind my wife.

As we walked away, mama yelled, "You put that dayum thang back in the crick or I ain't never buyin' you another goddamn toy ever. You hear me?" Jesus, I thought, remembering all those touchy-feely classes in parenting techniques my wife had ever dragged me to. But I chuckled to myself, certain that her crude logic (was it a bribe or a threat?) would work its magic on these kids and they would give up the fight and let this old creature lumber back into the murky waters of Stacy Creek where it belonged. The other children started back toward the pool, bored with this business.

A few minutes later, beside the pool, the fat girl was telling the lifeguard about the turtle. The lifeguard looked bored. Later, with my family happily bobbing in the water, swim ring, beach ball and all, I gave into an urge to brave the fire ants on the grassy slope beside the pool and peer through the chain link fence to check on the turtle.

I got to the fence just in time to see the boy, alone now, single- minded in his resolve, hoist the turtle into the shopping cart. Then, like Sisyphus pushing his rock, he leaned into the handle of the cart and off they went, jingling slowly across the rutted parking lot and out onto the blacktop leading uphill toward their mutual fate.

Mark Smith ( lives in Austin, Texas. His first book of short stories, Riddle (Argo Press) won the 1992 Austin Book Award. His first children's book, Slosh, was scheduled to be published in 1997. (This biography written in 1996.)

InterText stories written by Mark Smith: "Back From The West" (v2n5), "Reality Check" (v2n6), "Slime" (v3n1), "Doing Lunch" (v3n1), "Snapper" (v3n2), "Innocent Bystander" (v3n3), "Sue and Frank" (v3n5), "The Hard Edge of Things" (v6n2).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 3, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1993 Mark Smith.