The Turquoise Turtle
by Morris Marshall
It was early May 1997, and Christine and I were getting married in a month. We’d met at a Goodwill store in downtown Toronto where she still worked as manager on evenings and weekends. My college roommates, Jeff and Ron, happily looked forward to replacing me with someone who wouldn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink or steal the last banana from their food cupboard. I looked forward to starting a new life that included eating something other than packaged noodles and takeout food.
The two years I’d lived with Jeff and Ron had been a blast. Instead of going to Leon’s or IKEA, we furnished our living room with a three-seat sofa, easy chair and coffee table courtesy of the dumpster behind our building. We hosted college parties, watched movies and ate each other’s food. Ron regularly saw a cockroach hanging from the ceiling light in his room. It seemed to be waving at him and he claimed it as his close friend, naming him “Cockie.”
Not that there weren’t occasional problems. One evening, I came home from school to find a container full of my week-old dirty plates and cups sitting on my unmade bed. Another time, while studying late for an Economics exam, I used up Ron’s last coffee filter. He had to be up at four the next morning for his UPS preload job. I remember being jolted awake by screams, followed by the longest list of expletives I’ve ever heard.
A week later, around one in the morning, I decided I’d try fixing the clock on our stove. It lagged an hour behind, so I stuck a screwdriver inside the glass covering to move the minute hand forward. Sparks erupted, accompanied by a loud bang. Jeff and Ron came running out to the kitchen, probably expecting to see me crumpled up on the floor without vital signs. Thankfully, I was okay, but in the years since they’ve never let me forget about these incidents.
One Monday night, about three weeks before my wedding, I was in my room, studying for an Econometrics final. I stared at my textbook, trying to grasp the applications of multiple regression analysis, when several knocks sounded on the door.
Ron, a Creative Writing major with a mullet, looked inside. “Hey, Joe, we have someone who’s interested in renting your room. They want to come by Friday. Do you think you could have it cleaned by then?”
Textbooks, old notes, and clothes littered my room. More junk crammed my dresser drawers. The time had come for a generous donation to Goodwill.
“No problem,” I replied. “I’ll get on it right after my exam tomorrow.”
The cleanup began Wednesday night. I grabbed two old tennis racquets that I’d purchased at Value Village and stuffed them in a garbage bag. Then several pairs of black jeans and a light blue sports jacket. I gathered a bunch of textbooks — including my beloved Wealth of Nations — and shoved them into the donation bag. Old newspapers went into the “junk bag.”
Then I tackled the dresser. Nothing much of interest in the top drawer. Econometrics notes from last semester, mismatched socks, some highschool yearbooks and a few “top student” awards from grade eight. The second drawer coughed up more notes and textbooks, old tennis magazines, used Toronto Maple Leafs hockey tickets, a children’s book written by an ex-girlfriend and a long-forgotten O Henry chocolate bar.
I found the black box in the bottom drawer, buried deep beneath my underwear, jeans and Nirvana T-shirts. It had been sitting there since I’d moved in with Jeff and Ron two years before. It reminded me of the box in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” with strips of paint missing in a few areas to reveal the natural wood color. I’d lost the key years ago but, thankfully, it was unlocked.
The black box’s hinges creaked as I opened the top. The first thing I plucked from inside was a blue crest. Second place in long jump in the twelve-year-old division of the Toronto District Track and Field Meet. The award had come as a surprise to the other competitors since they were all about a foot taller than I was. Some of them even had moustaches.
Next up was a trophy proclaiming first prize in General Mercer Public School’s Grade Six Chess Tournament. Joe Stein, Champion. When I’d gone to the Toronto Chess Championship weeks later, I’d choked, losing all but one of my games. I threw the crest and trophy into the junk bag.
I looked around. The room’s appearance had improved. The green garbage bag was almost full of items to donate to Goodwill. I’m convinced that hoarding is a mental illness. The hoarder holds onto items for fear of needing them in a future that never transpires. Better not throw out that pair of ripped jeans I haven’t worn in four years. I may need them when I go to that rock concert next year. Or those yellowed Macroeconomics notes from second-year university. They could come in handy when I get to graduate school — if I ever pass my fourth-year Econometrics course. Food hoarders are the absolute worst. At least paper and clothes don’t stink when they accumulate.
I returned to the black box and peered inside. Only one thing left: a sterling silver chain with a small turtle charm attached to it. The turtle was silver with a head and shell comprised of light blue turquoise.
I picked it up and cradled it lightly in my palm, almost certain that I’d lost it in grade six while playing tackle football in the snow. There was no reason why I would have wanted to keep it, considering the childhood memory it evoked, a memory I’d never shared with anyone. Not even Christine.
I was nine years old when I first realized that I was different from other kids my age. My mom was bipolar, and it was almost impossible to get her to take her medication. The only time we could get her into hospital was when she made a scene and someone called the cops to complain, like the time she threw hot coffee on one of our neighbours.
Caring for mom occupied most of my dad’s time. The Children’s Aid Society vowed to take me away from my parents and place me in Foster Care because of allegations of neglect. When Dad threatened to take them to court, they backed off. “Your son is bright, but he doesn’t interact much with other kids his age,” I remember the social worker who visited our home saying. “We think he’d benefit from seeing someone.”
The Child Guidance Clinic was located at the back of a series of municipal government offices. Every Friday at 10 a.m., a taxi would pull up to my school and cart me off to the clinic, much to the chagrin and envy of my classmates. “Where are you going?” they’d ask with quizzical looks on their faces as I got up in the middle of class to leave. My shrug would invariably be met with responses like, “Boy, you’re lucky. You get to miss math. I wish I could go with you!”
At the clinic, two or three other kids were always present in a small room filled with toys, colouring books and pencil crayons. A social worker would sit with us, watching our interactions with each other and periodically asking us questions.
A large mirror covered the wall at the back of the room — or at least what I thought was a mirror. Years later, I realized that psychologists stood behind the glass, observing our every action as cops do in police interrogations on shows like Law and Order. What types of notes could they be writing about me?
I spent most of the time at the Guidance Clinic drawing pictures and keeping to myself. None of the other kids talked much either. The best thing about each session was the snack at the end: FBI grape drink and Oreo cookies.
“Joe. Hey, Joe.” Ron banged on my bedroom door.
He poked his head inside my room. “Wow. This is the cleanest I’ve ever seen it.”
I pointed to the garbage bag in the corner. “I’m taking that down to Goodwill tomorrow. Christine is going to love me.”
“That’s a nice necklace,” my roommate said, staring at the turquoise turtle charm in my hand. “Did Christine give it to you?”
“Nah, I got it when I was a kid.”
When I was eleven actually. The Children’s Aid Society decided that I would benefit from a male adult mentor who would take me out to movies, baseball games, and other activities that my dad couldn’t participate in because of my mom’s situation.
Tom, who came from Germany and drove a blue Jeep convertible, worked in a group home for troubled adolescents and volunteered as a “Children’s Mentor” once a week. In his early thirties, he had short, dark receding hair, a full beard and a penchant for wearing sunglasses. His girlfriend was a receptionist for a mid-sized firm.
It was fun to speed along the streets of Toronto in Tom’s Jeep during the summer of 1980, with the wind whipping through our hair and the radio blaring “Limelight” by Rush. We went to movies, restaurants and to the Science Centre. Tom bought me new clothes and took me to trendy hair salons that my parents couldn’t afford. We walked his Dalmatian puppy in a park along the waterfront. He even taught me my first and only card trick. When I gave him a picture of a dragon that I’d painstakingly sketched in green and red pencil crayon, he asked me to sign and date it. The next time I saw him, it was on display in his home in an elegant wooden frame. I felt like Ken Danby, my favorite artist.
When he discovered that I couldn’t swim, Tom taught me the front crawl at the University of Toronto pool. Once, when we went swimming in a lake up north, I was afraid to jump off the rocks into the water. Tom waited below and caught me when I leaped into his arms. When we dried off, I pointed out a jagged scar on his abdomen and questioned him about it. He became quiet. I persisted and he eventually recounted a teenage suicide attempt.
Tom had a tattoo of an infinity sign on his right forearm. “It means we’ll be best friends forever,” he once joked before snapping a Polaroid picture of us in front of his bathroom mirror with his arms wrapped protectively around me. I eagerly grasped the photo while it developed within minutes. A bright smile lit up my face.
One night we arrived late at Tom’s house after seeing a movie. E.T., I think it was. I called my parents and asked them to stay overnight. Busy taking care of my mom, my dad agreed.
Before bed, I threw up and Tom put me in the shower. As the water pelted me, he touched me in areas he shouldn’t have. My heart thudded loudly and my breath rasped in my throat. The word “dirty” flashed in my mind like a stuttering neon sign. Even at that young age, I knew it was wrong but felt powerless to stop it. Kids didn’t question adult authority in those days and, even if you did tell, no one would believe you.
Before taking me home in the morning, Tom produced a small black jewelry box with a turquoise turtle charm and silver necklace inside. I’d expressed interest in it the day before. It came from his personal collection of turtle paraphernalia — paintings, jewelry, and plates. He put the chain around my neck, but I took it off and slipped it into my pocket before I got home. Two weeks later, the Children’s Aid informed me that Tom had taken a job in another city. I never saw him again.
* * *
By Thursday evening, I’d completely cleared the junk out of my room. All that remained was my bed, desk, computer and current wardrobe. I took my green garbage bag full of items downtown to Christine’s Goodwill store. She was behind the counter, dressed in her blue apron. Her long dark hair spilled softly over her shoulders and she smiled at me when I walked in.
“New donations,” I said, resting the bag on the ground. I removed the turquoise turtle from my pocket and plunked it down on the counter.
Christine picked it up and turned it over in her hands. She couldn’t take her eyes off it. “It’s beautiful, Joe. It looks antique. Where’d you get it?”
I wanted to tell her right then, but several patrons stood nearby. “It... it was a childhood gift.”
Christine unlocked the glass case below the counter and placed the turquoise turtle inside. “We’ll put it in the auction,” she gushed. “A guy came in this morning who collects turtle jewelry. He asked me if anything new came in and said he’d be back next week. I bet he’d pay a mint for it.”
My heart thudded. “What did he look like?”
“He was in his fifties, bald, kind of fat, with a grey beard. Very friendly guy. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. Just wondering.”
“There was something unique about him,” Christine said.
“What do you mean?”
“He had an infinity tattoo on his forearm.”
My hands trembled as I took my fiancée’s arm. “Can... can you take a dinner break?”
Christine nodded. “Of course. What is it, Joe? You look like you’re going to throw up.”
I steadied myself against her and hugged her tightly. “Let’s go to the coffee shop across the street, Hon. We need to talk.”
Copyright © 2014 by Morris Marshall