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Poem: Sam and the Turtle

Sam and the Turtle This Place   I know exactly how many days we have lived here. And can tell you why. Every night I take my brother’s knife. Every […]
Sam and the Turtle

This Place


I know exactly how many days we have lived here.

And can tell you why.

Every night I take my brother’s knife. Every night I notch a line on the bottom bunk post. After six notches I make another notch diagonally across. This represents one week.

Like they do in jail.

Just like jail.


I’m not going to tell my parents about the knife or how I feel.

They are always too busy getting their lives back together. Or as dad likes to put it, our lives back on track.

Of course I’m not.

I’m no fool.

I’ve watched them both hustle double shifts. Saving up to leave so we could move to this place.

And sure enough, the same day Trent went to prison, mom ordered a U-Haul. I watched her throw everything we owned into the back of a truck. Including the dish washer, dad was forced to pull out from the wall.

Mom went crazy.

All night and half the morning. Blindly grabbing stuff from anywhere and everywhere. Throwing years of pillows onto the stoop. Followed by boxes of soaps and photographs, until the doorway was almost blocked. Then she’d squeeze through the gap and start throwing some more. Not caring if a chair missed its target and bounced off the side of the truck. Not caring if a lamp broke into splinters smashing against the main road.

Mom was so mad she didn’t even listen to Dad’s wailing.

What she couldn’t fit in the back of the truck she squeezed into the drivers cab.


Where we gonna sit? Dad asks.

That’s not my problem, mom yells. I’m moving.


We already knew where we were going.

Because that’s all they ever talked about.

How we were going to move someplace good because everything had gotten so bad here.

Who would have ever guessed, mom used to say, living in a small town could be as bad as those cities.

Everything was bad.

Bad. Bad. Bad.

We all knew one day Trent was either going to get himself shot or go to prison.

Secretly, I know they both say thank you in their prayers, knowing his soul is safely locked away. I think, maybe that’s why it took so long for us to finally move. They became loaded with guilt. Never communicating with each other. Hanging around. Waiting for nothing.

I watched it all.

Mom and dad too exhausted to reel Trent in.

Trent too beat up from watching them give up trying.



That’s the long and short of it.

That’s how we ended up in this place.


You have to be


As I was saying.

We have been here lots of times before.

Every Thanksgiving in fact since I can remember.

Both mom and dad were born close by and moved into town to take hospital jobs. This happened after I came along. Mom’s a day nurse, well was a day nurse. Now she works at the chemical plant clinic. And can’t believe how easy it is. Always telling us at the meal table how friendly folks here are. Sometimes there is nothing to do except paint your nails, she jokes. Just like the women at church who look pretty for lawyers.

And dad?

He worked on the hospital maintenance crew until he made superintendent.

Says he could retire if he wanted on the fat pension he was given. But this job they offered him at the new chemical plant is like swimming in the gravy.

These big cooperation’s don’t care about what high school you went to, he says, smiling at me like I’m stupid.

All these guys care about is the hours you put in.

Trent thinks differently.

Chemical plants are the new plantations, he said, every time we drove down River Road for Thanksgiving.

Personally, I always liked them. Especially at night.

Especially when we walked up along the levee after dinner. The bugs had started to die off by then. We walked so close we could hear them buzzing. And when it rained, they looked like giant jelly fish. Why jelly fish? Because I’ve seen them at the aquarium. Up close. With all their tiny lights buzzing. And the smoke laying low, slightly above the chimney stacks, forming clouds the color of ink, looks identical to the ink octopuses squirt out. I’ve seen that in real life as well.

Driving by, all the locals place bets on to see if the wind can push off the clouds of smoke or if the next rain storm can make them temporally disappear.

I do agree with my parents on one point.

Our housing.

Or as I have already outlined.

The place we are running away from.


Back then.

Everything was in good shape.

I know because everyone says so.

Sure there was some fighting, dad says. But the fighting wasn’t the real reason things fell apart. Everyone stopped talking to each other. Then drugs came along. Then no one cared if their neighbor moved. Dad says, no one could be bothered to ask why anyone was leaving, before it was too late.

Those who forgot to ask, ended up staying.

He was right.

I watched it happen.

Tile by tile.

Roof shingle by roof shingle.

Who has enough spare cash for home improvements after the TV and couch and all the matching dining room furniture is paid off anyways? Dad goes on. Just look at your mother’s kitchen. This ceiling has leaked on and off ever since we moved in. And how many times have I paid myself to repair it? It doesn’t take too many phone calls to know our landlords can’t be bothered. Because if they care, then they would have to spend some money of their own.


Once there was gardens.

Working elevators.

Windows to open.

A laundry and pool room down in the basement.

The glass room all boarded up was the social.

And when one person turned on the ac, the neighbor down the hall didn’t have to start worrying if his cable box was going to pop.


Eventually dad stops and goes back to watching his TV.

Mom is almost ready to join him.


They think I am writing in the kitchen and can’t see them cuddle and giggle.

They think I can’t see mom pat dad on the chest and say, stop it.

But she never means it.

I’ve always seen that.

They will send me to bed shortly. And yes, they will read to me if I want them to. But it never helps. I never fall asleep until I have heard their giggling and groaning. Even when all the trouble started with Trent, they kept at it. Even under the pillows I can hear them vibrating though my body.

Don’t worry.

I figured it out.

Mom and dad cuddle for a few minutes then mom goes down on dad.

Just as she promised him when she insisted he got his balls fixed.


How do I know all of this?

That’s easy.

I listen to grownups.

Then write it all down.


I told you I was smart.

I’m almost fourteen.

You have to be.




Got it good


I also read books.

& never watch TV.


Not because I don’t want to.

Not because I’m being punished for misbehaving.


I don’t watch TV because I can’t watch TV.

When mom was really young, like before my age, she hung out with an older man who liked to party. Troy Jones played the Zydeco and was quick on his heels.

Troy Jones threw big parties at his pool with lots of drugs and booze.

All for free.

Except, Mom says, nothing is ever free.

She says, she knew what God was telling her all along but refused to listen. Because Mom ended up hooked on a crack pipe before she was 16. Keeping down a part time job to pay for her habit while taking the bus to attend nursing school.

Nursing saved my life, she always says.

Saving others saved me.

In the first month she was shown a video of the side effects from crack cocaine.

Mom says, that’s when she got to see my Lord give her a second chance.

I secretly disagree.


I do however admit

I am grateful she knows how I watch TV.

Yes I’m privileged and smart.

No real side effects.

No dizzy spells or bed wetting.

I can’t type on a computer and have difficulty using a phone.

That’s not such a big deal.

It’s more embarrassing than anything.

Especially when mom and dad’s friends come over.


Why is he not watching the TV?

How come he’s not fiddling on his phone?

What’s wrong with him?

They always ask.

Nothing is wrong with him, dad affectionately smiles.

He just can’t watch no TV.

Why not?

That’s not normal.
Sam can’t watch the TV because what he sees looks like this.

Then mom or dad get up and walk over to the TV.

Then they fiddle with the cable box.

Mom says, there’s constant static in his brain caused by nerve tension.

And this is what he sees on the TV.


No one asks about me after that.

I say whatever.

I’ve got my pen and paper.

Yeah. I write stuff down.

As well.

You know.


And for the record.

It turns out.

If a women is using crack cocaine over a long period of time some of the toxins mess up her system. Damaging things like neurons.


Regardless if she stops using.

Side effects might never manifest however they often are carried on through to the child.


Trent doesn’t have it.

He has other issues.

As for me?

I got it good.




That Was That



There’s one of those slave flags hanging in the store next door.

What are you talking about?

A confederate flag is hanging in the country store.

The same store where dad drinks with his fellow workers and buys you eggs.

He’s a private citizen.

Who is?

The store keeper.

I thought your president made that illegal?

He’s your president too, young man. Outside for all the world to see, yes, it should never be raised no more. But inside, in private, it can stay.

For how long?

That’s not our place to know.


Dad says he’s part German. He joked to the store owner about them being related.

Well he is. His granddaddy came over from a Germany and worked as an engineer at the cane processing plant. That’s where your father gets his brains.


What now?

The Gracin boy said, no niggers should ever go in that store.

What did you say! I am going to ask you to apologize immediately to me and our Lord!

You know we never use that word in this house.

Trent said it all the time.

What’s got into you?

Well we are aren’t we?

This conversation has finished until your father gets home. If and when he gets home. He’s spending more and more time over there than he is here.

No kidding! And he’s drinking with a man who used to do lynching.

How do you know that?

The Gracin boy told me. That’s what I have been trying to say all along.

When the sheriff ordered him to take down the hanging post, Bartell said, only if he gets to keep the rope.

Who is Bartell?

The owner of the country store.

I’m going to talk to your dad when he gets home. He’s no fool. I’m sure it’s all harmless.


What’s harmless? Says dad, walking in the kitchen.

He’s beaming again, like his new work boots and hard hat.

You drinking with the store owner? Mom asks, pacing with a dish towel.

You mean, Bobbie?

She means that racist pig! I say.

What’s going on here? Will you both calm down?


Eventually we calm down enough to hear dad explain, his side of the coin.

He didn’t see any harm with everyone getting along. In his book we were guests here.

How’s that? I asked

We don’t own this house, he goes on. And we all feel, by that he means, him and mom feel, very lucky to be living here. Given the grocery store is next door and Bobbie has been straight and fair, dad says, let bygones be bygones. Anyways, there’s lots of other colored folks who go there to drink beer and buy his eggs.


That was that.

Discussion over.

Mom and dad went back to their giggling and squealing.

Leaving me to finalize my plan.




Swimming in the gravy


We never talk anymore about the flag in the general store.

But I can tell the conversation has left a hole in both mom and dad’s happiness.

For a while, I started to feel good about being able to create that.

But we all know good feelings never last very long.

They spoke to Trent every other night on their cell phones and once a month we drove up to Angola. For the most part we sat there in silence. Then we ate McDonalds before driving home.


One evening.

Out of the blue.

Dad almost fell through the front porch.

He grabbed my arm and ordered us to follow him outside.


Well, what do you think?

What’s wrong with the old one?

Son, we never owned the old one. Remember your uncle Frank? He was kind enough to loan me one from his fleet so we could get started up here. Mom’s going to keep driving the Cutlass. If that’s what you’re worried about?

Who said I’m worried about anything?

Well. You don’t look very happy. Anyhow, we both need more reliable vehicles.

The insides smell brand new.

Honey, that’s because they are brand new! Are your hands clean?

Don’t be so cheeky. How much did this all cost?

With my job I have good credit. The cooperation and the bank are the same. They can work together to make it work for the workers.

How much did it cost?

A lot less than you think.

Who do?

Who do what?

Who makes it work for the workers?

The cooperation. That’s who do. And yes, I have it covered. Trust me.

Don’t tell me, mom smiles, primping herself in the rear view mirror, we are swimming in the gravy.

That’s right, dad beams. We’re swimming in the gravy, sister. Swimming in the gravy.





Why Bother?


The other day, I almost quit my plan.

I couldn’t find Trent’s knife anywhere.

Dad took me and mom out on his boat.

At the camp.

It’s a cool spot.

Every year when he gets his fishing license renewed they both take the weekend off.

Trent used to come with us all the time.

He loves it out here.

I will never forget the time he jumped in the bayou and pretended a snake bit him.

Then mom nearly killed him when the ambulance showed up.

There’s Trent running from mom. Going round and around the Ambulance. There’s mom screaming and wailing. Meanwhile, back at the camp, dads having a beer with the paramedics and talking about fishing. Goes and gives them part of our catch, just to make sure they believe him.

Thanks for your time, he waved.


Of course, no one said a word until about half way home.

We all sat there pretending driving fast in the rain is safe.

Then all at once, we start laughing.

Then we don’t stop laughing.

The funny thing is, I could tell, and I think everyone else could tell, we were all laughing for different reasons.


It didn’t last long.

It never does.



I know I had the knife when we left the camp.

I checked my book bag before getting in the truck.

I always do that.

No matter where I go.

I do remember sharpening some pencils beside my bed.

But after that?

The knife disappeared.


I’m sure you have guessed the worst of it.

I can’t ask either of them if they have found it.

Or the new puppy.

Yes, we have a puppy now.

It’s my parent’s way of trying to emotionally fill in the gap of me missing Trent.

They know I don’t trust dogs.

But mom promised Trent years ago.

When we move that’s when we get you your own puppy, she was always saying.

What happens to my dog when you kick me out? Trent replied.

Don’t play smart with me. All you have to do is get a job. Then you can stay as long as you like.


No job.

No Home.


I knew my parents didn’t really mean it.

Just like the way mom pats dad on the chest, remember?

But no one bothered to tell Trent.

Now he’s in jail and I’ve got his dog.

A dog with a chip planted inside its neck.

Lolo is a rescue dog.

She can be tracked down from anywhere just like high security prisoners up at Angola.


I told Trent about the chip in his dog’s neck.

Trent claims he doesn’t have one.

I want to ask him how he knows.

But honestly, why bother?






I found Trent’s Knife.

I must have looked

Underneath our bed

at least twenty times.


But here it is.

Staring right at me.


Yet I have no clue

why or how this happens.


I’ve decided tomorrow is the day.

As soon as all their trucks are parked.

As soon as they have all gone inside.

As soon as they start drinking their beer.


yes I wish today

could be tomorrow

for every day of my life




The Turtle


I tell you what.

For a little fella

He’s mighty spirited.


Determined as an ox.

And stubborn too.

I’m going to give him his dues.


He’s got the right idea.


Oh, I know what you’re thinking.

How does a turtle know so much?

That’s easy.

He’s told me at least fifty times.

So there.

Every night, in fact.

Then another fifty times, every morning.

After he comes running into the tool shed to see if I’ve escaped.

He might be a smart little critter, but somehow he’s missing all the facts.

Snapping Turtles can burrow, you know?

We can claw through bed rock if the river is running too fast for swimming.

As it turns out the little tyke did me a favor.

This spot is cool and safe for my eggs.

Who. By the way. Hatched successfully. Thank you very much.

Egging always gives me a healthy sense of pride.

No matter how many times I do it.

Feels like I am contributing.

Doing my share.


Don’t worry.

I’m far from being melodramatic.

I verge permanently on this side of caution.

I’ve got to better my chances.

That’s all.

I’m not backing down.

He’s worked too hard to make this happen.

Make it happen finally, that is.

I know it took a lot longer than he expected. I watched him. Trying to build up his arm and leg muscles. Pushing up on his chest. Hey man, I’m a heavy turtle! And for a boy to pick me up by my tail, regain his balance and then walk across a lawn; in my book that takes more than will power.

Bless his heart!

One time I tried to help him balance by extending my neck.

The momentum threw him to the ground. To make matters worse, he landed on a nest of fire ants.

Well guess what the little urchin did next.

He got right on up.

Dusted off the ants like they were fleas.

And tried again.


Sure, I did my best.

Pretending to run away.

Trying to lead him over to the upright wheel borrow.

Again and again. Yes, I tried.

And I tell you what. A barrow and wheel sure makes any job easier.

But as I’ve already said. He’s stubborn as the rest of us.


Anyhow. As it stands.

The first part of his plan is a cake walk.

He’s finally figured out how to use his other outstretched arm as a brace.

And his dad’s work gloves give him extra grip.

It’s the part where he throws me into the country store full of grownups sipping beer where I need to have a game plan of my own.


I’m only hoping he remembers to swing.


Swing me up!

As high as his little body lets him.

Swing me then throw me high into the air.


He’s built like a pencil, I know.

But the higher he can throw me the longer flying time I have.

Unless, of course I crash into a counter.

And the higher I’m flying, the more chances I have of tearing into wailing hands and arms.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get a rebound and taste a piece of ear or a nose before the inevitable crash landing.

Crusty gum infested sawdust.

No less.

You have to realize.

Steel toed boots don’t scare me.

My jaws can slice through leather.

I was trained by the best.

Go straight for the ankles.

Bring them down fast. That’s my motto.

Then it’s a matter of choice.

All my choice.


And yes, I’m way too big for anyone to stomp or break anything over my shell.

I’ve simply got to cover my bases.

If he leaves the store door open, I have a three minute window to scurry off the front porch.

If he closes the door and bolts it from the outside, well, I have to hide before someone fires a gun.

That’s always the tricky part.

But I’m committed to this little guy.

I know what’s been eating me and have a good sense it’s related to what’s eating him.



Sam’s on his way over now.

I can tell he’s pumped and ready to roll.

Says he’s writing all this down and using the words as ammo.

I say good luck partner.

Let’s get this show on the road.

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