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The Essay
Show #365
Yangtze and the Turtle
David Gunn

Rosalina Rivera dashes out of the house clutching the envelope. Her neighbor, Luiz, is sitting in his yard carefully shaping a few dozen blades of cheatgrass into a topiary cricket. He looks up as she approaches him. "I told you," she says proudly to Luiz. "I told you Yangtze, my boy, would make it a success in America! See?" And she withdraws from the envelope the letter in which are folded four U.S. five dollar bills. "He follows his dream, and now he is an artist! Like his grande-abuelo, Diego, he paints murals. Soon he will have his own important exhibition!" Luiz touches the bills cautiously, as if they might suddenly evanesce. But, caramba, they are real!

"Si, Rosalina," he says. "Yangtze is a shrewd boy, and now maybe he will be able to pay me for the apples he stole from my trees last winter!"

"Pah!" retorts Rosalina. "The apples were wormy and mealy, and you were throwing them all away!"

The two, as they often do, continue to squabble, almost amiably. Meanwhile, in Pensacola, Florida, Yangtze is hard at work. In principle, he is an artist, but not the sort his mother envisions. He is in a small, cramped sweatshop, standing over an aquarium with a netted scoop in his hand. He peers into the murky water, spots his quarry, reaches in and scoops out a small turtle. He gently places it on his workstand and dries it off with his tee shirt. The turtle wriggles free and dives off the table in a brief bid for freedom. But Yangtze quickly dunks his index finger in a vial of petunia juice and holds it in front of the turtle's prehensile nose. To the turtle, the finger now smells like a predator seabird, so it promptly yanks its head into its shell. Yangtze picks up the turtle and places a piece of masking tape over the dorsal plates, trapping the head inside. Then he takes out his paintbrush, moistens it with his tongue, and dips the tip into a tin of crimson paint. With clean, narrow strokes, he paints "Souvenir of Florida" on the carapace, three words that, if painted often enough in a legible hand, net him $3.00 an hour over the course of a 60-hour work week.

Exactly one year ago, Yangtze escaped the monotony of a leisure-based economy at his home in Cancún, Mexico by swimming 660 miles across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida, a difficult feat under any circumstances but especially so when considering he was lugging a pair of heavy and frequently waterlogged suitcases full of his worldly possessions. The amazing accomplishment did not make it into any record book because he occasionally accepted rides from marine life--migrating groupers, mostly--plus he claims to have been carried for nearly 50 miles by a modern day pterosaur until, exhausted, it crash-landed onto a previously uncharted islet. Then, approaching Pensacola, he rode a large bloom of dinoflagellates to shore. The Floridians received him with ambivalence. On one hand, they were delighted that he had survived his ordeal--even prospered, for he had put on a little weight, acquired a nice tan and had become adept in conversational grouper. On the other hand, the red tide that bore him to shore was unwelcome, indeed, and the shellfish that were most likely to be adversely affected by the toxic protozoa picketed his arrival.

Impressed with the lifelike watercolors he'd found time to sketch in his journal during the journey, a widow named Bumpkins offered Yangtze a job. Hed start out by painting turtle shells for the tourist trade, but would soon graduate to real art projects--frescos and murals and triptychs. Alas, that was a year ago, and he was still painting "Souvenir of Florida" a couple of hundred times a day, six days a week. Too ashamed to tell his family what he was really doing, he mailed home a fib and four fins.

Yangtze finishes each "Florida" with an elegant little filigree, a personal touch that distinguishes his shells from all of the others on the market. He then gently removes the masking tape and holds a mirror in front of the turtle so it can admire his handiwork. "Muy bueno, eh?" he asks. Typically, there is no response. However, the animal he is presently cradling is no typical turtle.

"Perdedor," it says in a creepy, reptilian whisper. "Loser! You come all the way to America to be exploited by the touristos? Pah! Usted pierde su tiempo, you waste your time. ¡No más un artista que un ... un pomelo! You are no more an artist than a grapefruit!"

Yangtze is taken aback, but only briefly. These words are nothing new to him. He has said them to himself often during the past year. But the disgust with which the turtle calls him a grapefruit is particularly unnerving. He holds the turtle close to his face. "So? What should I do then, eh? Tell me that!"

The turtle appears to smile, though its hinged jaw is patently incapable of manifesting such an expression. It beckons Yangtze closer, so the boy brings the turtle right up to his ear. This time the reptilian voice is strong, hostile: "Nunca dé a tortuga un tiro limpio de su oído--never give a turtle a clear shot of your ear!" And the turtle bites down. Hard. Yangtze howls in pain, drops the turtle and runs out of the room, holding his bleeding earlobe. The turtle scuttles over to the aquarium and unlocks the glass panel, liberating the other captive terrapins. Together they ride the surge of brackish water into the floor drain, down through miles of underground conduits to be eventually discharged into the local bayou, and freedom. Yangtze, meanwhile, has also been discharged, but from his services by an unsympathetic Widow Bumpkins. But instead of embracing his freedom, he is embraced by a local INS agent, who forthwith deports him to Yucatan.

Is there a moral? How about "Nunca dé a tortuga un tiro limpio de su oído--never give a turtle a clear shot of your ear!" It isn't much, but unfortunately the more insightful moral followed the terrapins down the drain and is presently unavailable. What is available is this 365th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, coming to you from the broadcast studio of the "Souvenir of Goddard" radio station, a still-not-for-sale enterprise hosted, at least for the next foreseeable two hours, by Damian and Kalvos.