Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (4 page)

“I figure Grandmother is good for twenty-five
dollars,” Joss said. Her birthday was only four days away. She was adding up the money she planned on getting.

“That sounds horrible,” I said. Actually, Grandmother probably would give her twenty-five dollars. She was a creature of habit. She had given us both that amount as long as I could remember. When we were little, my mother and father used to put the checks in the bank in our savings account.

But for the past few years we'd been allowed to spend part of it. Last year I was going through an altruistic phase and said I was going to give five dollars of my birthday money to an organization which fed children overseas.

“Me too,” Joss said. “As a matter of fact, I'm going to give all of mine.” She settled on giving five dollars too. It made us feel good, knowing we were doing something for other kids.

“Are you going to spend the whole twenty-five on the horse?” I asked her.

Joss poked the pencil in her ear.

“I'll have to see,” she said.

“You better cut that out or you'll puncture your eardrum,” I said. I know this kid at school who had a thing about her ears being dirty. She was always attacking them with cotton swabs. Finally she had to go to the doctor and have him remove all the wax she'd been packing down in her ears all that time. That's kind of disgusting, but it's true. This same girl also used to smell her dog's ears to see if they smelled musty. If they did, she said, it meant he was sick.

She was definitely hung up on ears.

I knew another girl who had a fungus inside her ear. Every time she dove off the board at the Y pool, the fungus began to pulsate, due to the large dose of water it had received. Funguses—or is it fungi?—anyway, they thrive on water. Ear plugs didn't do any good. Eventually she had to give up diving entirely. Which was too bad, since she'd been planning to make the U.S. Olympic diving team.

This kind of information gives me goose pimples, it's so revolting. But it has a terrible fascination for me.

“You sound so mercenary when you say things like that,” I told Joss.

“I don't know what ‘mercenary' means,” Joss said, still poking at her ear. “I'm just being realistic.”

“Maybe she'll pick this year to give you a good book. A dictionary or something,” I said. “Or how about
The Joy of Sex

Joss liked that. She imitated Grandmother going to the bookstore.

“May I help you?” Joss, as clerk, asked. “What age group are you looking for?”

“It's for my granddaughter, she's going to be eleven.” Joss could sound like Grandmother when she concentrated. “She's mad about horses. That's all she talks about all day long.”

Joss jumped to the other side of the rug. “Then we have just the thing,” Joss, the clerk, said. “
Black Beauty

Joss jumped back to Grandmother's side.

“Oh, no, she's read that a thousand and twenty times. No.” Joss put her finger against the side of her nose the way Grandmother does and looked thoughtful. “I think it's time she learned the facts of life.”

“I have just the thing.” Joss was the clerk again. “It's called
The Joy of Sex

Grandmother looked doubtful. “Do you think it's suitable for a young girl?”

Joss pretended she was the clerk wrapping up
The Joy of Sex
. “It's one of our best sellers. It's number one on our best-seller list,” Joss said firmly. “And it's only twenty-five dollars.”

“Well, that's nice.” Joss paid the clerk imaginary money. “That's just what I usually spend so I guess that's all right.”

We rolled on the floor, laughing. Both of us could see Joss opening her birthday present in front of Mom and Dad and the expressions on their faces.

My stomach ached from laughing. There's something about a good laugh that's very salubrious. That's a word I learned last week. It's a very good word, very adult-sounding. I'm trying to figure out a way to work it into a poem. So far, no luck. It isn't easy to rhyme things with.

“What's all the racket?” Sam appeared at the door of our room. “Toot and I could hear you all the way down the street. Your mother said to come up and find out what was going on.”

Together, Sam and Tootie look like Laurel and Hardy. Sam is tall for his age and thin. His cowlicks make him look even taller. Tootie is short and still in possession of his baby fat.

Sam told me last week Tootie told him he wished they were brothers.

Sam was embarrassed. “I told the kid he already had three brothers, what'd he want another one for. And he said I was nicer than any of his real brothers. What do you say to a little kid when he says something like that?”

Tootie got in the habit of taking Sam's hand when they crossed the street or maybe when they walked down the block where a ferocious dog lived.

“I told him he was getting too old for that,” Sam said. “Imagine if some wise guy saw us holding hands. I don't even like to think about it. I told him he'd have to quit it.”

Now when Tootie walks with Sam he clasps his hands behind his back and paces, his head down. I told him he looked like a world leader at a conference. He was pleased.

“Kate and I were just talking about what my grandmother's giving me for my birthday,” Joss said. Her face was red. We looked at each other and started to giggle again.

“It must be awful funny,” Tootie said. He looks anxious a lot, as if he hoped to please people but isn't exactly sure how to go about it. I think that comes from the fact that he's the least bright kid in a big smart family and he gets teased a lot. Too much teasing can destroy a person's self-confidence.

Once Joss punched a kid who was giving Tootie a hard time. The kid was bigger than she was, but she knocked him down anyway. She took him by surprise. He never expected a wiry little kid to be so strong. Her strength was as the strength of ten because she was so mad. From then on, Tootie was Joss's shadow. I think he would've given his life for her if he could. No one has ever hero-worshipped me the way Tootie does Joss. I'm not sure I'd be up to it. No one has ever thought I was perfect, which is probably just as well.

“Let's go over to Essig's and see how Prince is,” Joss said. As the big day approached, she could feel Prince's hot breath on her neck and hear him whinny in our garage.

On our way out, we went through the kitchen and got a couple of bananas and cookies to eat on the journey. Sam took a huge handful. That ride to West Norwalk took a lot out of us.

“Don't be such a pig,” I told Sam. Boys his age are very greedy, I've noticed. More than girls, I mean.

“You know who you remind me of?” I asked Sam as we started out. Joss and Tootie were already down at the rotary, waiting for us.

Sam had to unlock his bike. He has a very valuable ten-speed bike, and he wasn't taking any chances. Sam's father told him he'd pay one half if Sam could cough up the other half. Sam never stopped moving until he earned that money. He mowed lawns, baby-sat, washed windows, you name it. So now, even when he left his bike alone for a second, he locked it.

“A very sinister-looking character was prowling around our house the other day,” Sam said. “He looked like a bike thief to me. I'm thinking of taking out insurance.”

“What's a bike thief look like anyhow?” I asked. Sometimes Sam didn't listen.

“He is lean and hungry and evil-looking,” Sam said. “He loiters a lot. I called up the police and reported a suspicious-looking bike thief loitering around my house. And you know what the guy said? He said, ‘Sonny, see if you can catch him in the act, then give me a call and I'll send somebody over.' How do you like that?” Sam can get very indignant at what he considers injustice.

“You know who you remind me of?” I asked Sam again. The lock was jammed and took a while. I could see Joss waving her arms at us, heard her holler, “Hurry up!”

“No, who?” Sam said absent-mindedly.

“Paul Newman,” I said.

“Paul who?” Sam asked.

“Paul Newman,” I said slowly and distinctly.

“Is that that new kid in Miss Costello's home room?” Sam wanted to know.

I knew it.

“Sam,” I said, “you live in another world. You know that?”

“And when I went outside to see what the guy was up to,” Sam continued, as if I hadn't asked him a question, “you know what? He turned out to be a vacuum-cleaner salesman.

“‘Your mother home, kid?' he said to me. ‘I got a special on these machines. I sell ten, I get a free trip to Atlantic City. The wife and kids included. Frankly, I'd rather go without the wife and kids, but the boss, he's a family man.'”

Sam put his bicycle lock in his pocket.

“How do you like that?” he asked me again and rode to meet Tootie and Joss.

“Get a move on,” he called back to me. I had a hard job catching up to him, I was so mad.

The two best things about Joss are her
eyes and her smell. She smells like a puppy that's just had a bath. She also smells of chewing gum that's been chewed awhile. I love Joss's smell.

Everybody has a smell of their own, I've decided. My mother smells of Femme, a French perfume she's addicted to. When the bottle is almost gone, she puts it in her underwear drawer so she gets the benefit of the last drop.

My father smells of his hair tonic, which has saved him from going the route of all the other men in his family, mainly: bald. When his father and two brothers and he get together, they sort of circle him suspiciously. Once in a while they feel his hair gingerly. I think they think it's a wig. But it's all his own. He owes it all to this hair tonic, which he orders by mail.

My mother's cousin Mona has a glandular condition. She's been to lots of doctors, specialists, to see if they can help her. So far, no luck. Mona smells peculiarly unpleasant. She takes about ten baths a day. She uses gallons of deodorants and lotions. Nothing does any good. Her glands work overtime, I guess.

After Mona comes for a visit, which isn't often, my mother opens the windows and says, “Poor Mona, she's such a nice person, such a sweet girl. It's a shame.”

My mother has been trying to find a husband for Mona for a long time. Mona is also not a girl, being twenty-nine. Joss and I are on the lookout for some guy whose sense of smell is all whacked out. If we find one, we figure Mona could move in on him, and as long as he couldn't smell her, she could win him easily. Mona runs a telephone-answering service, which means she doesn't have to mingle with people. Which is good in one way but bad in another. She doesn't get a chance to meet new men. I figure if Joss and I really set our minds to it, we could dig up some man whose nose is out of commission, due to an accident at birth or something. Mona wears pretty clothes and makes terrific lasagna. It's only her glands that are against her.

When I asked Joss what she thought I smelled like, she thought for a minute. Then she wrinkled her nose and said, “Salami.” We'd had salami sandwiches for lunch.

“I don't mean that,” I said. “What does my own personal smell remind you of? Everybody has a smell. Someday I'm going to write a murder mystery, and the way they trap the murderer is by his smell. His odor is so distinctive that it gives him away.”

Joss was polishing her boots, as usual.

“If you keep rubbing those things, they'll disintegrate,” I said crossly.

After a while Joss said, “You smell like a field of hay after a rain storm.”

“Hey,” I said, “that's pretty nice.”

“The only trouble is, down at one end of the field is a big bunch of cows,” Joss said, smiling.

I threw my hairbrush at her. It hit the wall and the handle broke. She threw one of her boots at me. I caught it and wouldn't give it to her until she took back the part about the cows.

We decided Miss Pemberthy smells like old socks. Tootie smells like peanut butter and erasers. Tootie erases stuff a lot. Sam smells like rubber bands and motor oil. My friend Ellen Spicer smells like baby lotion. Ellen's mother is bananas on the subject of how dry skin ages a person, so she bought Ellen the large economy size of baby lotion to pour on herself. Ellen is so busy trying to combat dry skin she doesn't even have time to talk on the telephone any more. Which is pretty silly at her age. Ellen's mother lies about her age. She's always saying she was practically a baby when Ellen was born, like about eighteen. Which, if true, would make her thirty-one now. My mother says she knows for a fact that Mrs. Spicer graduated from high school four years after
did, which would make her thirty-six.

thirty-six,” my mother said, pulling her eyebrows together in that positive way she has.

I'm not sure what a good thirty-six is against a bad thirty-six, but I'm willing to bet dough Mrs. Spicer isn't thirty-one. People, especially women, have such a thing about their age. I know a girl, who shall be nameless, who's always trying to pretend she's older than she is. She went skiing last winter with a bunch of kids who were all older than she was. So while they're lying about their ages so they can get a junior lift ticket to save a couple of bucks, she's lying, making herself older than she really is, and finds herself paying full price.

How stupid can you get.

“Mrs. Essig smells like talcum powder,” Joss said.

“And coffee,” I added. “She must drink a gallon of coffee every day. It's a wonder she doesn't have coffee nerves.”

“And Mr. Essig smells like—” Joss stopped to think.

“Mr. Essig just plain smells,” I said.

Joss frowned. “Mr. Essig smells like a farmer,” she said. “He's a man of the soil.”

“I got news for you, kid,” I said. “There haven't been any farms in West Norwalk practically since the American Revolution.”

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