The Sea Turtle Hospital
The lockdown at Arthur Elementary was the second at the school this week. It began while we were doing our class presentation: the Amazon Council of Beings. The secretary’s flat voice announced it just as Keisha Jones was introducing herself as a lemur. The Council of Beings capped off the kindergarten’s Amazon rainforest unit, and involved 22 five-year-olds sitting in a circle, wearing paper plate masks they had made of their assigned endangered animal, and Mrs. Reeves, the senior teacher, on a bongo drum. Keisha Jones announced she was a lemur, and we all said, in unison, “You are one of us!” and Keisha was describing what foods she ate and before we could tell her, also in unison, “We hear your needs,” and hear Mrs. Reeves majestically bang the bongo, the secretary said, statically, over the intercom, “Lockdown. School is currently in lockdown.” The vampire bat, squirrel monkey and butterfly were mad because they hadn’t announced what they were yet; Mrs. Reeves told me to lock the door and draw the blinds while she got the better (safer?) job of herding the kids into the reading nook; this pissed me off because she clearly didn’t mind if I took a bullet before she did. It was as though she voiced what I was thinking; she had the confidence to just say it. The assistant should go first.
The school shut down, locking windows and doors, supposedly allowing no one in or out, when there were reports of violence in the neighborhood. The first lockdown of the week happened after a 10th grader at the nearby junior high stood up during algebra class, brought out a hammer, and started whacking his classmates, and today, there was the brisk, almost office-like pop of gunshots two blocks away. I had worked here for a year and a half, and the lockdown protocol still messed me up, the click of the lock, the brisk, absurd drawing of the blinds, as though the thin plastic provided any protection from anything. I was not in a mood to be locked anywhere now, not since my diagnosis, and not since Hal moved out about four months ago. The kindergartners crouched, knees to chest, in their uniforms, the blue pants and crisp white collar shirts. They were good at making themselves tiny, even the larger ones.
Tyree’s mother texted me twenty minutes into the lockdown. R U OK? I hoped, in a sanguine moment, that she was asking about me. That made her one of the good parents. The good parents were the ones who complimented my blouse, who touched my shoulder and asked, how are you? We were all there “for the children,” black, white and brown, poor and rich, the ones who lived in the district and the ones floated in from the suburbs, clamoring for the waiting list. We were the public magnet school with the best test scores in the city—top five in the state. Mostly the parents wanted compliments about their children, no, the correct word was craved, wanted reassurance that their kids wouldn’t end up in the same sorry messes they were in, and this was true across the board, upper middle class to lower. The wealthier ones weren’t any happier with their lot in life, sometimes, oddly, less happy than the ones without a dime. I was good at handing out compliments, true and not, but I’ll admit that I gave better ones when they asked about me.
There was another pop in the street. Gunshots often sounded so innocent. My neck tensed. Mrs. Reeves loudly suggested a sing-a-long, an idea that was immediately nixed. I found a tiny bag of M & Ms in the supply closet and distributed them. Two per child. That used up about three minutes. One of the children farted loudly, fortunately, which led to much laughter. Maybe they could just have a farting contest. I didn’t want to propose this, and I secretly did. Keisha elbowed onto my lap. Travis started crying. The sirens, that mournful, looping sound, excited some of them, or the ones who rarely heard them, the suburban kids. We were located in the slightly ragged inner city of Drisden, North Carolina, our school in the neighborhood that the wealthy students, on off hours, wouldn’t drive through, and except for a couple bored-looking drug dealers on the corner, who ducked gracefully into the Kum ‘N Go when the patrol car floated by, and except for the fact you couldn’t leave anything on a porch, there was an uneasy sense of peace here.
Which child would I save first? I tried to imagine how many my body would cover. Five? Mrs. Reeves, a large woman, maybe eight? That left twelve of them to fend for themselves. Mo Sampson, the biter, maybe on one of his vampire-ish days, he could go. The girls, I couldn’t sort through the girls. Keisha, first. All of them spent their day with their hands in everyone’s hair—mine was light brown and feathered, Mrs. Reeves’ was a rope of white foam. One girl, Molly, the only student whose hair was red and perfectly straight, was the object of much interest and diligent work from the others, and each day she went home with a complex new do.
We crouched there for ten minutes. Twenty. Thirty. Mrs. Reeves sang “If I had a Hammer,” which was, I thought, a poor choice. Person of interest now on 10th. Travis bit his fingernails until one began to bleed. Keisha claimed my lap. “Remember to get your permission slips signed for our exciting field trip to the sea turtle hospital next week,” I reminded them, trying to sound hopeful about our collective future; they wanted to know how the injured turtles were rehabilitated, which I didn’t know, and if your hands smelled after you petted them, which I also didn’t know. Keisha climbed into my lap. I tried not to encourage sitting on laps or they would all Velcro themselves to me, but since Hal left, and I was still in this town where we had moved together, I was so lonely now sometimes I felt an endless emptiness when I breathed. Keisha leaned back against me and I let her.
Fifteen minutes went by. Twenty. Outside, Tyree’s mother was clearly unraveling. LUV U WE’LL GET ICE CREM
TIE UR SHOES
U CAN WATCH TV TONITE
I LUV U
IM THINKING WHAT UR THINKING
And what was that? I wondered, warily. I texted back TYREE IS FINE which led to a flurry of more texts: MAKE SURE HE PEES HE HOLDS IT IN DON’T GIVE HIM PEANUT PRODUCTS GIVE HIM A HUG CAN U JUST GET OUT OF THERE
Sometimes the parents were the scary ones.
There was the sound of a woman’s heels. My heart picked up. Principal Williams unlocked the door.
“Okay, children, class dismissed!” She said, airily, as though that had been the main question on everyone’s mind. Ha.
We had been crouched here for forty-five minutes; it took a moment to unfold and straighten up. We marched the children down the hallway. The sunlight was so bright it made my eyelids hurt. The parents were bunched up, looking impatient and haunted, on the dry gray lawn. The out-of-district parents peered out of their bulky minivans. The principal, Mrs. Diane Williams, a youngish woman who claimed to be a distant cousin of Beyonce, walked like she was campaigning for office, that kind of grand, bouncy stride of someone who was both confident and afraid.
“Just a fire drill, folks!” said Principal Williams. “Just practicing! No reason to be worried. See you tomorrow!”
I waited to see if the parents would revolt in the face of this absurd lie, but some of them seemed grateful. A fire drill? Why not? We’re okay! Everyone’s alive! The children were escorted out, one by one, like dignitaries. They were going home—to someone, mother, father, both, grandmother, aunt, uncle, foster parent. The adults grabbed the small hands, led them to cars. A sheriff’s car whizzed by the school so fast it left a burned rubber smell in the air.
The children floated off, one by one. I remained there with Dolores Hayes, third grade, who also worked Saturdays at the Macy’s perfume counter, where she stood spraying innocent bystanders and inquiring politely if they wanted to buy Obsession or Angel. She sprayed with more generosity, she said, as we got closer to the EOG tests, particularly if her class was particularly ill-prepared. She had developed a tic in her left eye over the last year, which she confided to me was easy to hide at the fragrance counter because she could pretend she got perfume in her eye. I had spotted the entire sixth grade faculty hawking shoes after school hours at Shoe Carnival, and the art teacher bussing dishes at Ruby Tuesday’s.
“You do it, too, hon,” she said. “You’re a cute little girl. I’ll put in a good word. For the holidays—”
We all needed the money. It would have been rude if someone didn’t, frankly. Sorry, I’m fine with one job. I’m going to the gym now, bye.
“That’s all you need? To be cute?”
“And don’t you speak Spanish? That’s a plus.”
“No.” I had wavy brown hair and olive-y skin, which meant that the parents and teachers constantly mixed me up with the teacher who ran the Spanish club. Actually, I was Jewish, sort of, from Arizona, but I didn’t observe.
“Oh. Well, then all you need is a loose hand with the spritzer.”
“How do you have the energy?” I asked her.
“I don’t,” she said. “The Lord helps me teach these children. He gets me through the day.”
She said that, merrily, though I had seen her at the perfume counter, one Saturday after Hal left and I convinced myself to get out and walk around the mall, she was clutching the spritzer bottle with a determination that was slightly daunting. She hit everyone in her path. You buy perfume. You. You. I will buy my diabetic daughter medicine and keep her from eating Ho-hos.
“You, it’s just you to take care of,” said Dolores. “You could work perfume and women’s wear, you could rack it up.”
It was just me to take care of. Ha. Just. That was what anyone bound legally to anyone thought. One person was easier. It was, some days—I just had my own thoughts to bump around in my brain, I didn’t have to have anyone else’s thoughts swallow my own. My thoughts took all the space; there was no room for anyone else’s. I definitely couldn’t hear any of my boyfriend Hal’s, who wanted to get married, but who ran for it after my diagnosis. He said I hit him, which was a stretch. I was trying for the wall, he was in the way. I was normally a gentle person, I was.
We had moved here, to North Carolina, his idea. He wanted to raise a family near the beach. He had just gotten a law degree and I was going to teach. He had other ideas for us, where we should live, how many children we should have, etc., he was the sort who liked to have ideas and have others agree with them. I was the sort who went along because I wasn’t sure what else to do. We had a decent year here, we got engaged, then there was a lump in my throat, it was suspicious, like a criminal, the doctors took it out, it was early, they said they got it all. They said I should be fine. They used the word should, not would. CAT scans every three months. Go about your daily business.
No worries, said Hal. Let’s get married.
But I had changed my mind.
The truth was that I was jealous of him, his lithe, healthy body, the way he could get up in the morning and not think that anything was wrong. He was thirty years old and believed he was 20; I was 25 and suddenly felt like an old person—40, 50 or more. His mind still extended thirty, forty years, still believing in the concept of the long blank road; it was a beautiful and absurd luxury. How had we ended up living in such different minds? It seemed wrong to feel this sort of jealousy. I was a kindergarten teacher, which meant that people did not see me as a competitive person; but I was, I admit, competitive with him, his pure, easy hope, in our lives, in the idea of this illusion: a future.
What had happened? Where had I ended up? Each morning, I woke to the apartment, to a silence with so much weight I could feel it on my chest. I had a moment when I saw the pale morning sunlight brightening the floor and I forgot everything that had happened in the last few months. Perhaps Hal was in the next room, perhaps I still thought I loved him, for there was both comfort and confusion in that—perhaps it was better than this weighted silence. Perhaps my throat did not have a scar. The morning began with a moment of nothingness, of boredom, even—that privilege—before I remembered what was true. Then I got dressed in a rush, ate breakfast, got out of the apartment, for I needed to get to school, to set the crayon baskets on the tables, to lift the small chairs off the table and set them around the desks.
By four p.m., the traffic circle was empty and all the children were shipped off to their various hopes and catastrophes. Car doors slammed as the staff began to leave. The only one still here was Keisha Jones. She calmly chewed on one of her many dark brown braids.
“Who’s picking you up today?” I asked her.
“I don’t know.”
“Your mom? Your dad? Your aunt?”
She raised her shoulders and dropped them; “I don’t know.”
We walked back into the office, where the secretary, Shanelle, who had gold fingernails curled like she was going for something in the Guinness book, handed me the phone contact list. I called her home.
“This is Miss Samson, Keisha’s teacher.”
“Um. Shouldn’t she be home?”
“She’s still at school. We wondered who was coming to pick her up.”
“Shit,” said her aunt. “Oh. Sorry, I guess it was supposed to be me—”
“Is her mother around?”
“She’s on second shift at the hospital. Not back till 8—”
“Is anyone else here who could pick her up?”
“Can’t drive, ma’am.”
“Can you get on a bus?”
“I sprained my foot, miss, and I can’t walk.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I can’t walk.” Her voice was rising. “Her mama’s not coming home till eleven—”
“Anyone else I can call?”
“I don’t know…her uncle, maybe, but, no, he’s on till nine tonight, they’re doing a big fundraiser at Chick Fil A…they need him. Her dad’s…” her aunt’s voice started rising. “I can’t walk, miss, really, I can’t—”
There were the various heartbreaking excuses we heard, the relatives who were assigned pickup but had been arrested, the ones who had fallen asleep in front of the TV, there were the family friends who had offered to do a good deed but were too depressed and forgot, there were broken down cars, etc., but mostly the reason people missed school pickup were dreary—the assigned person was at work. Everyone was always at work. The first job, the second job, etc. There was no car and there was a sprained foot and there was another kid sitting there, waiting.
“I’ll drive her home,” said Mrs. Reeves, holding out her hand. “Come on, sugarplum.”
“No. Miss Samson,” said Keisha, gripping my hand.
“I’ll do it,” I said. I didn’t know why I said it. Keisha jumped up and pumped her fist with joy, as though she’d won a raffle.
“You know the way?” said Mrs. Reeves, raising an eyebrow. “She’s on North 9th.”
She said it that way because this was where the “free lunch” children lived; she thought I’d somehow be intimidated. “I can figure it out,” I said, annoyed.
“Well,” said Mrs. Reeves, and they signed Keisha out with me. 4:15.
“Remember, to get an adult to sign your permission slip for the sea turtle field trip,” said Mrs. Reeves to Keisha. “Due tomorrow.”
Keisha nodded. As we walked to the car, she gripped my hand fiercely, as though I were a kite and she was holding me from gusty winds.
She was one of those students who had decided I was good. It was a silly, rash decision, based on nothing. Why did anyone decide anyone else was good? It was a particularly charged question in this school, the crown of student achievement and also “diversity” in the city, which meant that the white parents wore a self-satisfied glow, like they felt they were helping make a better world (and then scrounged for any extra scrap for their children) and the black parents were generally at a higher state of alert, as though they thought at any minute they would be robbed. Who was good? Meaning—what good will you do for me and my child? And why had Hal thought I was good? I lay in bed and watched him, sleeping, innocent, knowing (at first) nothing of my criticisms of him. I felt my love for him hit a limit— that was the real illness, this confusion. He was fortunate, in his certainty, and I, with my doubt, felt somehow tainted. He could not see my doubt, and that was, I thought, the crueler thing.
Keisha had decided I was good. I had done nothing but give her a little attention. We sat and sounded out words together. I see a c-at. The c-at is s-oft. She was the best one in class, my speed reader. The cat is soft. The cat jumps. I see the cat. Done. Next book. It was the rare, divine dance between teacher and student, in which I helped her locate what she already knew.
She removed her mask and surveyed my car. “Your car is messy,” she said.
“I know. Sorry about that,” I said. The back seat was basically a museum of fast food wrappers. I swept them onto the floor and Keisha gingerly settled into a seat.
“It smells,” she said. I was both ashamed and offended and opened a window.
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said.
I started the car. We sat there, in silence. It was strange having someone else in the car. She kicked at some of the crumpled wrappers on the floor.
“I don’t want to go home yet,” said Keisha.
She paused. “It’s boring.”
“There’s too much talking.”
“What do you mean?”
“The people on the TV. They keep talking, talking, my aunt likes listening to it too much.” She paused. “She likes Oprah more than me.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “I know your mother and father love you—”
Her chin twitched slightly. “Stop talking,” she said. She looked out the window and then at me again. “Do you know we have a 42-inch flat screen?” she said, quickly.
“Nice,” I said.
“Everyone’s face is giant,” she said.
She crossed her small arms in front of her chest and sighed.
I knew where she lived; it was a brick development that, with its white columns, feigned some sort of elegance save the graffiti and the various detritus of poverty—the broken glass on the sidewalk, the groups of men hanging out midday, the cars with towels covering broken windows. You blinked and it could be an elegant townhouse, a retirement community, except for the fact that some of the kids who lived there ate double or triple breakfasts in the cafeteria because they hadn’t eaten any dinner besides a bag of chips the night before. I drove toward the streetlight. I was just driving along like a normal, responsible person, one who was even doing a good deed, and suddenly I didn’t want to be alone in the car. I had that feeling again that I would disappear. It was hard to explain, but I feared that my fingers, arms, legs would begin to dissolve in a blur of static; I could not quite believe that I had a hold on my body, that anyone could hold onto anyone, and that the vinyl car seat, the smeared window, the blue sky outside was actually real. I distrusted the world around me, the physical. My palms began to sweat and I could, I thought, hear my heart, and suddenly I wanted Keisha’s presence in the car; I needed someone beside me. I wanted a witness to tell me that I was alive.
Left was the direction of her apartment; suddenly, my hands turned the car to the right. My heart rate began to slow. Keisha petted the yarn fur on her lemur mask. She did not notice the turn at all.
“Harry copied me,” she said. “I drew a purple flower tree and he did too.”
Harry was one of those kids whose parents thought this was a private school because it had a waiting list. They didn’t have quite enough money for the actual private school, and his mother came in wound as tight as a violin. What level was he reading at? What books were available to him in the library? Were we teaching multiplication yet? His mother was a prosecutor for our city, a fact that she reminded me of constantly, and surveyed the classroom as though planning her opening arguments. Harry was not being stimulated. She was ready to catch us on misdemeanors of inattention, bad storytelling. But Harry seemed as needy as Jose, who exited the bus the first day with a note pinned to his shirt: Me llamo Jose. Tengo cinco anos. Jose attached himself to Mrs. Reeves the first day, followed her to the bathroom and stood outside, Harry his compadre in this, the two of them stalking her as though she were food.
“If he copied you, it’s a compliment,” I said. “He liked your tree.”
“I don’t care,” she said. “It’s my tree.” She paused. “I’m hungry,” she said. “Really hungry.”
“Didn’t you have lunch?”
“That was a long time ago. They had tacos with yucky meat.”
I felt sad for the kids sometimes, stand in the cafeteria line and stare at the gunk that was sold as edible.
“Do you want me to pick up some dinner?” I asked. “It’ll just take a sec.”
“Sure! Yes!” she said.
I pulled into the first eatery I saw, a Hardee’s. We piled out.
There were the brightly lit squares advertising the burgers and combos, the flat screen TV blaring Fox News, the red-shirted employees trying to look busy. It was 4:30 and the place was bustling with people—this early? The customers studied the menu with expressions of longing and discernment. Keisha skipped up to the register.
“I want the junior thickburger with onion rings and a strawberry shake,” she announced.
The register worker, a young woman with gold metallic eye shadow which looked strangely glamorous in the fast food light, stared at Keisha and said, “Keisha, hon! Who you with?”
“This is my teacher.”
The register worker, whose nametag said Shawnte, regarded me warily.
“You on a field trip?”
“No, I’m giving her a ride home.”
I smiled. What was I doing? Could Shawnte see that suddenly I could not bear to be alone?
“Do teachers do that these days?”
“If no one else picks up,” I said.
“Where’s her aunt?”
“My momma’s working,” said Keisha, “and my aunt hurt her foot, and everyone was working but my teacher took me home—”
“Oh,” said Shawnte, still wary, though the impulse to finish the sale was stronger than the impulse to interfere, so she just handed me my change. Then her attitude shifted. “What grade do you teach?”
“I want to go back to school. I was taking cosmetology at the community college but then my aid fell through but I really want to be a lawyer. I like to argue.”
“You should start again,” I said, in a teacherly voice; she seemed to want to hear that.
“Do I need to know math?” she asked, suddenly panicked. “I’m bad at math—do I need to take more of it?”
The customer behind me cleared his throat. “Miss, I’d like a double cheeseburger with a large fries and a diet Coke—”
“I don’t know about math,” I started, “but—”
“I hate it,” she said. “I get this fluttery feeling and then I—”
“I hate being hungry,” said the man behind me. “That’s a double cheeseburger with—”
“Hold on, sir,” said Shawnte, “The burgers aren’t going anywhere—”
“Shawnte!” bellowed a manager. “Next!”
“Okay,” said Shawnte. She sighed and looked at me intently. “You’re number 34. I’ll bring it to you.”
Keisha pulled one, two, three napkins out of the dispenser, spread them into a sort of tablecloth on the plastic table.
“How do you know Shawnte?” I asked.
“She dated my brother.”
She took a packet of sugar from a wire container, ripped the packet open and poured it into her mouth. The fast food restaurant had a strangely serious feel to it; customers hunched over their horrible food as though discussing important topics, and some even seemed to believe this was a romantic locale, gazed at each other, in love. I had had boyfriends, I said I love you plenty of times, but I didn’t know if I had ever loved anyone, truly, or not enough, and this was a fact that shamed me. I was aware that I laughed at Hal’s jokes because I knew he needed me to, that he wasn’t truly funny, that I thought he interrupted me too frequently, that I sometimes thought of others when we kissed. Hal’s love was enormous and enveloping, but it was not what I wanted because somehow it left me out. Had something happened to me during my operation or had I always been like this? I wanted to reach into the heads of these couples gazing sweetly over their greasy burgers and grab hold of what they were feeling.
“Here we are,” said Shawnte, setting the burger in front of Keisha, who grabbed the burger and started wolfing it down. Shawnte paused.
“How’s your brother, Keisha?”
“Boring. I don’t know.”
Shawnte paused. “How’s your dad?”
Keisha stopped eating; she looked up at Shawnte. “He went to a hotel.”
“A hotel? Really?”
Keisha looked puzzled and started eating again. “When he started talking really fast.”
Shawnte nodded, as though she were listening for something else. “O-kay,” she said.
I stood up and gestured to Shawnte to speak to me at the next table. “What happened?” I asked.
Shawnte leaned toward me. “Schizo,” she whispered to me. “Or something.”
“Oh,” I said.
“No insurance, no meds,” she said, and flicked a fly off the napkin dispenser.
“When did this happen?” I asked.
“Couple days ago. He broke the TV.”
Keisha was looping onion rings around her fingers and eating the rings slowly.
“Oh,” I said, and sat down again.
“The Lord takes care of all of us,” said Shawnte, looking frightened.
“Well, I don’t know,” I said. This talk always aggravated me.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” asked Shawnte. She tucked her braids gently into her Hardee’s hat.
“I wouldn’t put all my marbles into an invisible bowl,” I said. I had had to keep my mouth shut at school about this topic—the parents who wanted to slip notes that said He has risen into the “spring” eggs they hid for the annual egg hunt, the flyers advertising the church youth group the principal allowed in the school folders, the winter concert that featured only Christmas songs. I think what annoyed me was the assumption that everyone felt the same way.
Shawnte looked at me, shocked.
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” she said, crisply. “He is going to help me become a lawyer.”
She stood there, fingering her braids, glaring at me as though I’d interfered with her student loan. Keisha looked over, curious.
“You can help yourself become a lawyer,” I said, “You should stop by the community college again and—”
“Shawnte! Register five!” called a stern-looking manager.
Shawnte glanced over; she looked worried, as though to leave now was to forego important advice about her future.
“What do I—” she began.
“Just go to the college and tell them what you want,” I lamely suggested. The community college, the vessel of all hope. I had seen so many of the children’s parents stop by, become put off by the snippy administrators, start classes, stop them, sometimes graduate. Who knew who would sign up, buy the books, come to class, get a job they liked, ramble about their lives, on some road that continued? Would there even be a road? Would Shawnte really stop by? Keisha listened, chewing.
“Shawnte, today please!” called the manager.
“O-kay,” Shawnte whispered. She grabbed an onion ring off Keisha’s basket, and she was off.
I felt restless, as though I had let down Shawnte. Though what did I know about becoming a lawyer, or anything really? How did anyone figure out how to accomplish anything worthy—go to school, love, raise a child? We all needed our guides to get through our own particular disasters. My cell phone rang, a number I didn’t recognize. The time was 5:12; we had left at 4:30. I started to press the phone to answer it, and then I didn’t.
The two of us sat as the other customers swirled around us; there was the odor of salt and grilled meat and French fries and the glaring bright light made me feel we were on a stage set, that sharp and slow, unreal feeling. I wanted to believe, for a moment, I would walk out these doors and have someone to go home to, that everything inside me would behave just the way it was supposed to. I looked at Keisha, finishing the onion rings, and I imagined she had some things she wanted of her own, too.
“Miss Samson,” she said, “am I your favorite?”
The children sniffed this out, the teacher’s preferences, with great and accurate stealth. You were to deny it, always, but there were ones you loved more than the others, it was true.
“Keisha,” I said, “I love you and all of your classmates.”
“I want to be the favorite one,” she said, firmly.
“Well, you are the best reader,” I said. She beamed; she loved that.
“I know,” she said. She looked around for something to read, to show off. “Ex. It. Exit,” she said.
“Cook. Ay-ee,” she said, looking at the foldout on the table.
“Cook. Eee. Yes.”
“I want a book,” she said.
“Well, maybe you can—”
“Buy me one.”
She looked at me, half challenging, half begging. The time was now almost 5:30. “Keisha,” I said, suddenly nervous, “We have to get you—”
“Buy me a book first.” She gripped my arm, her fingers digging into my skin. There was a big bookstore beside Hardee’s. I said yes.
She ran into the children’s section and sat down, piling books she could almost read into her lap. “Read!” she demanded, in an intent, almost threatening voice, and she sat on my lap while I read her slim chapter books about a random variety of topics: kittens, dairy farms, thunderstorms, spring, California, ballet, construction vehicles, everything described with a crazy, one-note cheerfulness that made me want to weep. Her breath rose in and out as she listened, rapt. I read her the ridiculous sentences: Some kittens like to play with yarn. This position is called first position in ballet. A dump truck carries dirt from a building site. We were supposed to celebrate this simplicity with the kindergarteners; we, the teacher, enforced it—it was ridiculous and necessary and comforting and now I wanted to crawl inside it.
She did not want to let go of one book: sea turtles. They nested at a beach not far away. I read: Nesting occurs May through August. Turtles lay about 120 eggs in a nest. After hatchlings come out, they head to the sea. Only a lucky few survive; some people estimate 1 in 1000 survive the first year, and about 1 in 5 or 10,000 become adult turtles. No one knows why.
The pictures showed the turtles swimming; they resembled hunched old men, flapping small fins in clear aqua water. They looked like people who had not quite become people, but were trying, floating, with their tiny almost-arms.
“They’re so big,” said Keisha, staring at the photos.
“Let’s get this book and go,” I said.
I bought the book and we left the store. Keisha clutched her book to her chest. It was almost 6 pm. It was May and the sky was bright and burning and young, a faded blue rimmed with pink, barely any sense of darkness behind it; abundant, golden clouds moved through it, and light fell through the clouds in a column, translucent. I had not noticed the sky’s beauty in awhile; as I stood and looked at it, not with astonishment as much as restlessness, I wanted to run toward those clouds, that burning, gorgeous light, wrap my arms around the clouds and consume them; I loved them so deeply my skin felt thin. I wanted Keisha to notice them, to see how beautiful they were. In my hand, my car keys jingled.
Keisha flipped through the book quickly, and then again, as though there were pages she had skipped.
“I want to see one,” she said. “Now,” she said, and sounded adamant.
“Why now?” I asked.
“Please. I want to see one. I want to touch its shell.”
She looked at me, expectant; I had bought her a book; now I should conjure up a sea turtle. I was grateful that she saw any power in me. The sea turtle hospital was about twenty minutes from here. I was a kindergarten teacher, which meant that I really was not an impulsive person.
“But why?” I asked.
She kicked a chunk of asphalt on the parking lot. “I want to see something new.”
Her small, damp hand reached up to grip mine; she seemed to believe that I knew what I was doing. I knew nothing—that much I had learned these last few months. I stood there and tried to feel what it was like to know something; my arms burned.
Her belief was a gift.
“Hon,” I said, “Me, too.”
The hospital was open late tonight, till 7:00, and if I drove fast we would get there in time. I was now a teacher on a mission; I was going to show her the sea turtles, something miraculous and new. Keisha sat in the back seat of the car, and I watched her examining her lemur mask, fingering the yarn pieces that resembled fur. I caught her slipping the rubber band over her forehead and sitting, quietly, with her lemur face as she looked out the window. She did not question any of this—the fact that she was in an unwashed car, riding with her kindergarten teacher to the sea turtle hospital at six-thirty at night— she simply let herself be carried along this journey, gazed out the window at the enormous, darkening sky.
I thought, I should not be taking her on a field trip at 6:30, I should call her aunt and tell her where we were, and I felt a flutter of panic that I had not just driven her home, that we had taken these other detours, and I picked up my cell phone, I was about to call her aunt and tell her not to worry, that we would be there asap, this was an educational opportunity, by the way, I was all ready to be reassuring and to go home, and then I felt again that sad, fragile sensation that my body was about to disappear. It was an awful feeling to have, to be convinced that any minute your hands, your arms would begin to fade, and I had had it the first time when the doctor came into the room and looked at me with stern eyes; I held onto the steering wheel and thought, I am a part of this, I am a part of Keisha’s life—I wanted to be part of someone’s life. My hands trembled on the steering wheel; I didn’t want to be wrong or unreasonable, but I wanted her to see the sea turtle, hell, I wanted to see one now, see these animals with their grand, hard shells floating dreamily in their tanks.
At 6:50, I drove into the parking lot of the sea turtle hospital. The promotional materials made the place seem much more significant than it was. I thought it would be an actual hospital, two stories, with a lobby and such, but it was a small vinyl sided building, almost like a ranch-style house. A woman in her fifties, with a short grey bob, was sweeping the parking lot. Keisha and I jumped out.
“Hey,” I said. “We just wanted to take a look. Can we come in?”
The woman stared at us. “We’re about to close,” she said.
“Just for a second. My—” Student wouldn’t sound right at this time of day, I caught myself—”friend really wants to see a turtle. She really wants to. Just for a sec.”
I was speaking a little too quickly. We had to get in. Keisha held up her book. The woman looked at us, and I wondered what she saw.
“Well, okay, for a few minutes. Come on in.”
The hospital was a single room that held about ten enormous bathtubs. I stuffed a couple dollars into a box marked Donations and walked toward the tubs. They were about the size of Jacuzzis and were surrounded by walls that were about four feet high. The room had a dour, greenish, marine odor. Keisha held her shirt over her nose. There was a low roar of a water filter in the corner.
“Come meet our patients,” said the woman, who wore a name tag that said Melissa. Keisha stepped onto a stool beside a bathtub and peered into it. She let out a wispy, astonished breath; there was a turtle, the size of a carry-on suitcase, floating very calmly in about three feet of water.
“This is Holly,” Melissa said. “She was hit by a propeller and it opened her shell. You can see the marks where it happened.”
There was a big chart marked PATIENTS on the wall. It featured a list of unlikely turtle names, such as BING, HONEY, MAXINE, WARREN, SPIKE, HUGH and others, and a list describing an illness or injury—fracture, carapace; cold, stunned; viral; hook, entanglement. The last column described the outcomes: Released or Died.
“How do you treat them?” I asked.
“Each one is different,” said Melissa. “We get here by 7 a.m. and we have to get the food ready for each turtle. Some of them are sort of picky. We have to scoop the tanks a lot and clean and wash towels. Each one has special needs—”
I watched Keisha. She was both intrigued by the turtles and maybe a little disappointed in them. Depending on the angle and the shape of their beak, they all looked eager or philosophical or disapproving. Snow peered at us, with his small, almost eagle-like head, and shrugged his shoulders, the wrinkled shoulders of an old man. There was Bing, who had a hook stuck in his ear, Maxine, who had run into a fishing boat and just seemed perpetually shocked as she floated in her tub, staring at us with her unblinking black eyes.
“Our goal is to release them back to the sea,” said Melissa and she showed us a poster containing photos of energetic people cradling the enormous turtles and gently placing them in the tide. One photo, titled “Local Humans,” showed a group of volunteers cheering as a turtle made its way to sea.
“It’s the greatest feeling,” said Melissa. “You know? When you know it’s where it needs to be, when it pushes the water with its flippers…”
I admit, I was jealous of those turtles, of the care the volunteers took, of the force and purity of “Local Humans’” love. Keisha gazed at Melissa with interest, the way children do when adults speak with great enthusiasm about something; it was as though the girl was trying to interpret what the woman was really saying about the world.
“Can I touch Snow?” she asked.
“He’s a little grouchy. How about Hugh,” said Melissa. She walked us to the largest tank, where a turtle swam around. He seemed to be in a hurry, but he kept bumping into the sides, turning, swimming and bumping again.
“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.
“Hugh,” said Melissa, and stopped for a moment. She looked as though she were about to cry. “Hugh’s in good health, but he’s blind. He was caught in a fishing net and a fisherman banged him on the head so hard he can’t see.”
“Oh, no,” I said.
“He’s good-natured,” said Melissa. She snapped her fingers against the tub. “Hugh,” she said. The turtle turned and swam in the direction of her voice.
“So how long will he be here?” I asked.
“Turtles can live over a hundred years,” she said. “He’ll outlive us all.”
I could not breathe for a moment after that statement. “Really?” I asked. “He could live for a hundred years? So what will happen to him?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know who will take care of him. We can’t just let him out again if he can’t see. He’ll get eaten.” Melissa paused. “This is where he needs to live for his whole life.”
We watched Hugh, who had stopped and seemed to be listening to our voices. I thought of him paddling away in the dark, bumping into the same walls over and over. The thought made my insides feel trembly, hollow.
“Can I touch him?” asked Keisha.
“Sure,” said Melissa. Keisha stood on her tiptoes and lightly touched Hugh’s shell. I reached over and put a hand on his shell, too. It was wet and slick and very hard, a shell that appeared to offer great protection. I thought Keisha would think it was unpleasant, but she stroked his shell very sweetly, and Hugh, amazingly, held still.
“He’s quite sociable,” said Melissa.
Keisha lifted her hand and Melissa squirted hand sanitizer on it.
“What’s going to happen to him?” Keisha asked, concerned.
Melissa paused. “We’ll take good care of him. But—we don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” asked Keisha, her voice rising.
“Y’all can sign up on our volunteer sheet—we’re always looking for—”
Keisha stared at me. “This wasn’t in my book,” she said. “Save him.”
“Me?” I asked.
“He needs a better tub!” said Keisha, her voice rising. “A bigger one. Duh! So he doesn’t bump his head!”
“Well,” said Melissa, now looking alarmed, “with more funding—”
We looked at Hugh, who began to paddle away, and then stopped and floated in the tub, seeming to look at us. It felt as though he was judging us, with his rapt, wrinkled face, but he knew nothing about us except that he had felt the pressure of our hands on his shell. I had a stupid urge to ask him something, anything. What would happen to me? To Keisha? Would we be happy? Or what?
Keisha began to cry. “He’s so cute,” she said. She stepped back from the tub and kicked the ground, hard.
“Let’s go,” I told Keisha, using my firm teacher’s voice. I took her hand and began to lead her from the tub. She broke away from me and ran out the door into the parking lot.
“Wait!” I called, running after her.
“Is everything okay?” asked Melissa, hurrying after us.
Keisha ran from the sea turtle hospital, and she could have kept going, through the parking lot, my god, onto the road, but she didn’t; she stopped. When I reached her, she was crying, breathing hard.
“Keisha. Are you okay?” I asked her. I knelt in front of her and grabbed her hands. This was not what I wanted to happen, not the happy, triumphant girl I had imagined bringing to her front door; I had so wanted her to have seen something good.
She was standing in the middle of the parking lot, crying. The air was starting to cool, the evening light draining from the sky.
“It’s okay,” I said, softly, her pulse beating in my hand, “It’s okay—”
She took a large gulp of air and her sobs stopped.
“Tell me,” she said.
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me what kind of tub he should get.”
I told her what kind of tub Hugh should get, and then she got back into the car and I drove her home. It felt like a long drive, though maybe it was because it was really night then, the sky dark, the cars and businesses making a faint gray haze over the city; we both were tired, perhaps me especially, and I gripped the steering wheel harder, with more conviction, perhaps, on the way back. It was 7:50 p.m. when I pulled to the curb of Keisha’s apartment on North 9th street. Keisha waited for me to come around the car and grabbed my hand, and we started walking toward Apartment 3A. There were a lot of cars parked in the lot outside her apartment, including one police car. I didn’t feel like I was vanishing then, though maybe I should have; I was aware of every cell of my body, my hands, my face, my legs, every part both sacred and sad; my heart banged away in my chest, and my throat was turning to ice. A door opened to 3A and a young woman—I think it was Shawnte, still in her Hardee’s shirt—burst out. “Keisha!” she exclaimed. A large group of people gathered at the door—there was her mother, off early, in her blue hospital scrubs, raising a Kleenex to wipe sweat off her face, and there was her aunt, leaning on a crutch—all of them staring at me.
I remembered what I had told Keisha when we were standing in the parking lot of the sea turtle hospital. I told her the type of tub I wanted to build for Hugh. It would be big, a mile long even, with slides and curving parts in certain places to make it fun. It would have special pools with rocks so that Hugh could imagine he was in a tide pool. Maybe there could be other nice turtles in there that would be his friends. Slowly, Keisha stopped crying. Maybe, she said, a smart doctor might invent special drops that could cure his blindness and then Hugh could paddle out to sea. Maybe, I said, we would all gather at the shore and watch him swim out, and he would take in the sea with his perfect new vision, he would remember how to swim, and he would feel the buoyancy of the waves under his fins as he floated into the blue, deep water. Floating, she said. He would like that. Floating, I said. He would swim, strong, into the waves, he would swim and swim into the sunlit water. She nodded. The sky above us was so dark and seemed weighted, as though holding back something invisible and enormous. I knelt in the crumbling asphalt while her small hands gripped mine and I waited for her to tell me the next thing.