A Writer’s Notebook: newspaper/object story

This is the beginning of something, but where it goes, I don’t yet know:

When I was in college I bought pot from a guy who kept turtles in a kiddie pool on his sun porch. I forget how many altogether, but he had at least a dozen in there. All kinds, too — a handful of box turtles, a few snappers, a slider, a river cooter. Barry had only bought two of them himself; the rest he got from customers who couldn’t pay for their dime bags.

If you hung around Barry long enough, he’d take you through his house to the back yard and introduce you to Clive, his six-hundred-pound tortoise. If you were a girl, he’d let you ride Clive. Otherwise, you’d just stand around sharing a pre-sale joint, blowing smoke in Clive’s old face and feeding him heads of lettuce.

Clive was another payment, but not for any dime bags. Barry had gotten him from a distributer in Tijuana in exchange for running a truckload of grass into the States. Barry never volunteered how he’d got both the pot and the tortoise across the border, and I never asked. But I do know this was back in the early `80s, so Barry’d had Clive for more than a decade by the time I met him.

The Mexican had gotten Clive as a birthday present from his great-uncle, who in turn had found the tortoise as a boy while wandering the streets of his Mexican village. When the great-uncle had found him, Clive was as big as a man’s head; when I first met Clive, he was slightly smaller than my sofa. As near as we could figure, Clive was nearly a hundred and thirty years old.

Barry got into pot because he had stomach cancer. Last month, he died. I hadn’t heard from him in years, not since college, and I didn’t really smoke anymore unless someone else was carrying. So there was no reason I would ever know that Barry had died, except that, for some reason, I inherited Clive, who by now must be a hundred and fifty.

A couple of weeks ago my mother-in-law sent me an article on left-handedness (I’m a lefty — or, more accurately, I’m mixed-handed but have a left-handed preference). The article appeared in an October issue of the newspaper insert American Profile, and when I finished it, I skimmed the rest of the insert for any other interesting tidbits. And tidbits there were: in a brief section titled “Tidbit: Did you know? . . .” the issue contains a paragraph about a tortoise in Colorado:

Toby the tortoise, who was found in 1911 by a 10-year-old girl, marked a century in captivity in August. During his last 28 years, the reptile has been cared for by Karen Churnside, of Boulder (pop. 97,385), Toby’s third “custodian.”

Which got me thinking about Italo Calvino and my favorite of his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, his chapter on “Quickness,” in which he explains the technique of giving even the briefest story a grand scale by focusing an object rather on characters. By following an object as it passes from person to person over time, you can convey a lot in very little space. Think of the ring in Lord of the Rings, or the violin in The Red Violin. And I figured, with a tortoise’s long lifespan, why not tell a story about a tortoise passing from one generation to the next and crossing continents?

I’m not really sure yet what sort of story this might become, but it’s fun building the foundations like this.

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2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: newspaper/object story

    1. Thanks, Ryan! This is actually the piece I told you I was going to start working on and would want your feedback on. It’s not ready for feedback yet, obviously, but it’s good to know I’m on the right track. I’ll try to knock out a fuller, better draft and send it to you after I’ve finished a few projects, including looking at the last of your stories you sent me.

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