Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (5 page)

“He smells of the land,” Joss insisted. “When I grow up, I'm going to marry a man who smells just like Mr. Essig. I
like
the way he smells.”

When Joss makes up her mind about a person, it stays made. There's no sense arguing with her. Mr. Essig is one of the world's finest because he rents horses, I guess. I think if there was a story in tomorrow's paper saying Mr. Essig had run amok, killing Mrs. Essig, her girl friend Sheila, and several others, Joss would probably say, “Poor man, it wasn't his fault.” As long as he didn't knock off the horses while he was running amok, that is.

We spent the entire weekend getting the
garage ready for Prince. If anyone had wanted to, they could've eaten off the floor. Joss took a couple of blankets from the storage closet where my mother had put them for the summer and spread them in a corner.

“Just in case we have a cold spell,” she said.

“If I were you, I wouldn't use that white one that Dad gave Mom for Christmas,” I said. “I happen to know that's her favorite, plus it cost a lot of money and she loves it. Also, I don't really think it's necessary for a horse to have a white blanket. Do you?” I used my most sarcastic tone, which made no dent in Joss whatsoever.

“I just want him to be comfortable,” she said. You'd think Prince was a new baby coming home from the hospital, the way she was carrying on.

Joss got the scrub pail from under the kitchen sink and filled it with water in case Prince was parched after his trip.

“After all,” she said, “he isn't used to taking such long trips. West Norwalk isn't exactly around the corner.”

“Tell me,” I said. “I ride my bike there quite frequently. The muscles on my brawny legs are strong as iron bands from pedaling up Comstock Hill.”

“Kate,” Joss said, “this is going to be the best time in my whole life. When I get Prince, I will be in paradise. That's all there is to it.” She hugged herself. Her eyes were gigantic. Joss's face is narrow anyway, and when she is happy, the way she was now, her eyes seem to expand and take up more room than ordinarily.

“Listen,” I said, “what if something happens and Grandmother really doesn't send you the money? Or suppose Prince broke a leg or something? It's not good to count so much on something.”

“It doesn't matter what you say, Kate. Nothing will stop me having Prince here. Nothing. It is ordained.” Joss knelt down and touched her forehead to the garage floor. We had seen a guru do this on television only last week. He was a pretty fat guru, and touching his head to the floor didn't come easy.

“Yeah, well, it's also ordained that you better put that blanket back in the closet before Mom or Dad sees it on the garage floor,” I said. “If they do, it is ordained that you'll get a few smacks on your rear end.”

Reluctantly Joss decided maybe I was right. At dinner that night she told my father how neat and clean and shining our garage was, in anticipation of the great event.

“And, Dad,” she said seriously, “I don't want you to put your car in the garage. Not now, anyway. Not until after Prince goes back to Mr. Essig.”

“Is that so?” I could tell my father was amused. He has a way of tensing the corners of his mouth when he doesn't want to laugh. “What do you suggest I do with it? Leave it at the station and take a taxi?”

“Well”—Joss rested her chin in her hands—“that's not a bad idea. I was thinking you could leave it out on the street. Just for a little bit, Dad. Only a week. That's not too much to ask, is it?”

My father was such a pushover. He rubbed the back of his hand back and forth over Joss's cheek.

“I guess not,” he said. “But what do I get out of it? What'll you do for me?”

Joss considered for such a long time that my mother finally said, “Eat before it gets cold.”

“I'll tell you,” she said slowly, waving her fork in the air, “you can have the best thing of all, the very best.”

“What's that?” my father asked.

“You,” said Joss, as if she were giving him the Nobel peace prize, “can have the first ride on Prince.”

We all sat around the table and smiled at one another. I don't know why, but at that moment our family was probably the happiest we had ever been.

“I'm overwhelmed,” my father said.

June

You know how the longer you wait for
something, the further off it seems to get? First we had to get school out of the way. Then came Prince. The time dragged until I could hardly stand it. Suddenly school was over. The last day was always fun. Everybody milled around the playground, comparing marks and talking about what they were going to do for the summer. A couple of girls were going to camp. Some of my friends had baby-sitting jobs. The Adams boys were going to visit Disney World.

“My sister is renting a horse,” I said when people asked me what my plans were. I didn't tell them it was just for a week. “And I have a lot of writing to do,” I added importantly.

It was funny how many kids said, “Are you going to write about the horse?” I hadn't thought about it, to tell the truth. Prince was a nice horse but not what I would term inspiring. No Black Beauty, he. Yesterday I was reading about a famous author who said he wrote five different things at the same time. He keeps a separate folder for each work. He's in the process of writing a short story, a play, a novel, an autobiography, and something else—I forget what. I should think he'd get awfully confused, but he says he doesn't. I would.

Tootie passed his reading test and his spelling and even his arithmetic. He's a new man. He carried his report card around in his back pocket in case anyone wanted to see it. He smiled all the time. When Tootie smiles, his cheeks tuck themselves up under his eyes. It's a most amazing sight. Then he chuckles. It's a treat to hear him. No one chuckles like Tootie. Joss has tried to imitate him. She can't even come close. It's a unique sound.

The day school closed, he came to our house. When Joss saw him coming up the walk, she said to my mother, “Ask to see his report card, Mom. He's so proud.”

“My, that's wonderful!” my mother exclaimed. “I never thought you had it in you, Tootie!”

“Neither did I,” he said. “My mother and father will probably flop on the floor when they see it.”

My mother and Joss went out of the kitchen, and suddenly Tootie's mouth was so close to my ear his breath tickled. “Kate,” he whispered, first looking to the right, then to the left, to make sure we were alone, “I want to show you my present for Joss.”

“I think the coast is clear,” I said. Tootie pulled a rock out of his pocket.

“It's a heart,” he said. It did look a lot like a heart except for one side that was sort of sharp and pointed. The other side was perfect.

“That's terrific,” I said. “Where'd you get it?”

“I went to visit my aunt and uncle, and we went for a walk on the beach, and there it was. I wasn't even looking. My uncle really found it,” Tootie admitted. “He said I could have it. I like it so much I want to keep it for myself.”

“Why don't you then?” I said. “You can give her something else.”

“No,” Tootie said. I could tell he'd thought about this a lot. “It's for Joss. It's the thing I like best in the world of my own, so it's for Joss.”

I thought that was pretty nice. “You're a good man, Toot,” I told him. We shook hands. I don't know why. I felt like touching him, and I didn't know how else to do it. He was too old to hug.

Have you ever had a day when everything seems to go right? I mean, nothing you could do was wrong? It's the most amazing experience. It gives you a feeling of such goodwill you can hardly stand it. Everybody you meet smiles and says something pleasant. The sun shines, and all the dogs along the way wag their tails, and when you wash your hair it lies flat instead of frizzing up.

I've had plenty of the other kind too. You wake up feeling mean, and your shoelace breaks, and there's no more toothpaste so you have to use salt, and your mother hollers at you for something you didn't even do. Chances are the whole day will be like that.

The first kind is better.

On the morning of her birthday, Joss was up
with the sun. She tried to be quiet, but I heard her go. The birds were making an awful lot of noise. Once I heard the screen door slam—it made almost as much noise as the birds—I couldn't get back to sleep. I got up and leaned on the windowsill. From there I could see Joss skipping over the lawn. She curved her arms and tilted her head. I knew she was pretending she was a ballet dancer. I have pretended the same thing on occasion.

She rolled down the hill and lay spread eagle, looking up at the sky. I was glad she didn't know I was watching her. That would've spoiled everything. People act different if they think they're being watched. As it was, Joss was absolutely free of anything except her pleasure and the fact that today was her birthday. She was eleven and something marvelous was about to happen to her.

I was tempted to call out or even to put on my shorts and join her. But I figured she wanted to be alone. If she had to share this moment, it wouldn't be the same. There are times when a person is so glad to be alive and breathing and smelling and feeling that another human being is in the way. I've been like that once or twice. I think that's what being happy means.

I went back to bed and closed my eyes. Sometimes early morning is the best time of day for writing. I have a typewriter which I'm fond of using, but I was afraid the noise might wake up my mother and father. I keep a pad and pencil on the bedside table in case I wake in the middle of the night with some really terrific idea or line in a poem. I got this idea from my English teacher, who said some of the best, most creative ideas come when you're lying awake in the night, and if you don't jot them down immediately, by morning you will have forgotten. I think this is sound advice. The only trouble is I never wake in the middle of the night. I know a lot of people have trouble sleeping on account of all the ads for sleeping medicine they run on TV. I imagine that's for old people or someone who forgot to go to the bathroom or who is having an attack of acid indigestion. There must be a lot of the latter around too, if you can believe the TV ads.

When I went down to breakfast, my father was sitting at the table by himself.

“What is so rare as a day in June?” He was eating two boiled eggs because it was Saturday He always has two eggs on Saturday and one the other days of the week. No one can boil an egg the way he does, according to him. Not too slippery, yet not too hard. It's a real knack.

“I don't know, what is?” Joss said. She banged the screen door again, coming in.

“What is what?” he asked.

“So rare as a day in June,” she said.

“A rhetorical question, my love,” he answered. “I can't decide whether to play golf or mow the lawn. With two big, strong girls sitting around doing nothing but eating bonbons, I don't see why I should have to mow the lawn. Do you?”

“Dad,” Joss said, “today's the day.”

“What day is that?”

“The day I get Prince,” she said.

“I forgot, I clean forgot. Happy birthday, Joss. But who is Prince?”

Joss looked at him, her face carefully blank. She'd play this game for a little bit but not for very long.

“A new boy who moved down the block,” she said.

“Is he of royal blood?” my father asked, enjoying himself.

“Here comes Mr. Watcha,” I called. I'd been watching for Mr. Watcha, who was our mailman. “Watching for Mr. Watcha” was the name of one of the very first poems I ever wrote. Actually, it wasn't very good. The title was the best thing about it.

Joss beat me to the door.

“Four for you, Joss,” Mr. Watcha said. He'd been delivering mail to us for as long as I could remember. He held up the envelopes and pretended he was trying to see what was inside. “They sure look like birthday greetings to me. It's your birthday again, is it, Joss? Seems like you just had one. Happy returns of the day and many more.”

Mr. Watcha is going to retire next year. He and his wife are going to live in Florida, where they can fish every day. Mrs. Watcha is even a better fisherman than Mr. Watcha, he tells me.

“You ought to see Imogene haul 'em in,” he told us. “Won the tuna contest three times in a row. Why, she puts most men to shame.” I met Mrs. Watcha one day at the supermarket. She is a very husky lady. Mr. Watcha introduced us, and she said, “Well, I'm certainly pleased to meet you. Charlie's told me all about you girls.” She slapped me on the back, and I almost upset an entire display of canned peaches.

“Watch it, Imogene,” Mr. Watcha said as he steadied me. “She doesn't know her own strength, that one,” he said proudly.

“Nothing for you today, Kate, maybe tomorrow,” Mr. Watcha said, handing me two magazines and a letter for my mother. He said that every time. Mr. Watcha is a very thoughtful man.

“I'm getting my horse today, Mr. Watcha,” Joss told him. “As soon as I get my birthday check from my grandmother, I'm going right over to get Prince.”

Mr. Watcha opened his eyes wide. “That so?” he said. “It's a fine thing when a girl has a horse of her own. Why, I remember my sister Gertrude—Trudie we all called her—and she wanted a horse in the worst way. Course, we lived on the fifth floor of a building over in Bridgeport, and there wasn't too much chance she'd ever realize her ambition. Not too many horses you'd find could walk up five flights of stairs, is there?” He winked and went down the path.

“Do you think he was serious?” Joss asked me.

“Open the cards and let's see what you've got,” I told her. When it comes to mail, any mail, I just rip it open in a flash. Joss is the kind of person who turns the letter this way and that, and even if it has a return address on it, she checks the postmark and all to see what time of day it was mailed and how long it took to get where it was going. She drives me bonkers when it comes to opening mail.

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