21 days left to nominate this book
Back to top

First pages

PART I: The House, Fall, 1999

The Turtle Keeper

An aesthete embedded a tortoise’s shell

with jewels in the exact pattern

of an oriental carpet.

The tortoise walked, condemned,

in a locked room

on its flat lifeless twin

until it died.


The turtles in the enclosure

will live when I am dead,

and the world is dead to me.

They will walk on my bleached ashes

with nailed feet

and no sense of revenge.

Chapter One

Harry squatted down and thought himself into the egret’s body: spread toes gripping mud, hard hollow bones, light feathers closed down, layering over them. A reflection of long, fragile legs deep in the rippling dark. An infinite patience. A watery rhythm so subtle it seemed motionless.

The muscled shoulders curved, then propelled the beaked head into a quick, precise killing motion. A stab. Something dripped and struggled Harry stood, stretched, coughed, stared out over the lagoon. The tide was coming in. It rushed through the narrow opening under the bridge over Highway 101 that ran along the shore, then calmed and spread to make a pond under the railroad trestle. Cormorants hunched on poles jutting out of the water. Stilts, trailing their long black legs, flew overhead.

He shrugged his backpack up on his shoulders, plunged into a thick stand of bamboo, then onto a faint track, one of the several meandering paths made by animals, kids playing hunting games, and illegals from Mexico. A rustling in the brush froze him for a long moment. A bobcat dashed in front of him, then into the bamboo so fast that at first he thought it was just another illusion.

In a short while, he veered off the path into a trackless thicket of second-growth trees, insinuating himself through the branches and the brush, looking down to make sure he wasn’t following a route he had taken before to the clearing.

His tent was the color of the ground, a grey brown. Still there. Harry had found it in a surplus store in Oceanside, site of Camp Pendleton, a Marine base, fifteen miles to the north. He had strung the canvas with ropes on ground pegs and tree limbs, then draped it with netting to keep out the mosquitoes. Inside the tent, he dropped the backpack on a shelf and dug through it for a plastic bag of groceries, from which he took two chicken breasts he had bought at Seaside Market down in the center of Cardiff. He laid the breasts on a folding table and cut off the gristle and bits of fat, enclosed the scraps in a plastic bag, then knotted it. He lit his gas-burning barbecue, started some almond oil sizzling in a pan, and laid the chicken breasts in the pan with a half-inch of space between them. While the chicken was browning, he opened a package of pre-washed salad greens and put some on a plate. Then, with a knife he kept very sharp, he minced a clove of garlic almost into a paste on a board and put it in blue ceramic bowl along with lemon, mustard, and salt, and, using a wire whip, beat in extra-virgin Italian olive oil drop by drop. When he was done, he poured the dressing into a lidded jar and put the bowl aside to be washed later with the other dishes.

The thicket was quiet except for the sound of the tree branches creaking in the ocean breeze, an occasional bird call, the murmuring of passing cars. He sat in an ancient recliner chair, his only real piece of furniture, to wait while the meat cooked. He was tired. All day, he had worked at building a fence for a very particular customer, who liked to stand at his shoulder and make suggestions. He had paid attention and nodded at what she said, making alterations when she suggested them, had kept on, but it had been difficult. Usually, the rhythm of the work, the steady pounding of the hammer as he nailed the boards to the framework, would become like a mantra, and though he would end the day tired, he would not feel nerve-frayed, as he was now. His shoulders still held the tension.

It was late afternoon, close to dusk. The light was poor for reading, yet it was too early to light the kerosene lamp. He didn’t want to be found. Once night fell, walkers and bird watchers went home, and the lagoon belonged to him, the animals, and the immigrants from Mexico, who kept to themselves, in hiding from “la migra,” the immigration authorities.

From the aroma, he knew the chicken was ready to be turned. He was just rising from his chair when he heard an animal bark. The sound came from the direction of the water. He stood still and alert. Something big and careless crashed through the underbrush towards him. It had to be a domestic dog—coyotes never made much noise.

A low voice—a woman’s—called, “Max! Max! Come here, you simpleton!” In spite of the words, the tone was indulgent.

The dog came into the clearing first. He was a big, happy-faced shepherd mix, skin still loose with puppyhood. His tail was wagging, his attention fixed on the frying pan.

Harry cut off a piece of the chicken with his army knife and held it out in his palm to the dog, who took it delicately in his mouth, then swallowed it all in a gulp. “It’s all I can spare,” Harry said.

Panting, a woman burst into the clearing. Dressed in blue jeans and purple sweatshirt, she wore her pale hair in a long, single braid down to her waist. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to disturb you. Come, Max, I’ll feed you at home. Look at him! He’s hardly underfed, is he?”

“He looks like a fine dog,” said Harry, watching her mobile face, where he thought he could read anxiety at her dog’s behavior at war with her interest in the camp. A complex face. He liked the look of it—open and eager, but not credulous. The clear gray eyes, curious and intelligent, slightly wary—she would regard him keenly, then look away as if not to be too intrusive.

Her gaze swept over the camp. Visible through the open tent flap were the wooden counters and shelves he had built to hold his clothes, the plastic containers of dry food, and, most telling, his books. He knew the signs. In her eyes, as she saw the permanence of the setup, his status would fall from overnight recreational camper to homeless. Campers didn’t have bookshelves or, for that matter, close to two hundred books sitting on them. Usually when people found him (rarely), they would silently back away and disappear into the trees, as if he were contagious. She didn’t.

“You live here,” she said.

“Yes, for now,” he replied.

“You didn’t need to feed Max,” she said, her face concerned.

“I can afford it,” he replied.

“I didn’t mean that,” she replied quickly. “I’m sure you don’t keep slabs of meat around. They would attract wild animals. And the chicken is your dinner. If you give it away, you have to walk back to town and buy some more. It’ll be dark soon. Manchester Avenue is dangerous at night.”

“I have a truck,” Harry said.

“The old green Ford parked on the edge of the road?”

“That’s the one. Made in 1962.”

“I’ve seen it there before,” she said.

“As for the food, I always buy extra, counting on feeding some wild animal. I leave plates by the water sometimes.” He wondered why he was telling her this, as he watched her try to puzzle him out. She didn’t make a move to leave, just stood there, polite.

“Would you like to look around?” he finally said. “I’ll give you the tour.”

“Sure,” she said, following him inside the tent. “You’re so neat. I envy that, being a slob, myself. It must feel natural—living out in the open like this. But you definitely have not gone native.”

“No,” he said.

She started to bend over before a row of books, then looked up at him over her shoulder, “Do you mind? May I look at them?”

He hesitated only a second or two. To him, his choice of books was a private matter. To have someone examine them without asking could seem a violation of sorts. She knew that. So he nodded.

She leaned over to look at the titles. “Oh, you have RecognitionsI read that twenty years ago, on a train in Europe.”

“It’s very intricate,” he replied.

“Layered. Yes. Hard to ferret out where the truth is in it. That’s why I like it.”

He nodded, standing still in the same place, watching her. She pulled out another book. “Now, this is a surprise! Golden Notebook. That book changed my life. Made me see myself.”

“Lessing’s too much of a whiner for my taste,” Harry said.

“You have to read it in the context of its time,” she replied. He saw her face fall as she realized she was being stuffy.

“No, I don’t,” he said, smiling. “You can’t make me.”

“Of course you don’t!” She stood, considered him and changed the subject. “What made you choose the lagoon to camp in?”

“It suits me,” Harry replied. He looked off into the trees.

“A wetland. Not many of them left. And this one’s threatened. I get on my soap box about it.”She spoke quickly as if she was trying keep up with her mind.AIt used to be that the right amount of fresh water flowed down from the uplands, and the incoming tides flushed in, bringing salt. So the lagoon was always salty to the proper degree. Brackish. A nursery for sea creatures. A haven for birds.”

“And now?” asked Harry. He liked hearing her talk, soft and quick.

“The fresh water’s polluted. Runoff, irrigation. Too much of it coming down from the tracts. Once Escondido Creek ran only part of the year. Now it runs all the time. And the entrance to the ocean blocks up. Sometimes the city bulldozes a channel so that water can flow back and forth under the bridge.”

“With the tides.”

“Yes. But it’s a stopgap. Listen to me, I’m lecturing at you. You probably know all this.”

“Some of it,” he said. “You explained it well.”

Max was nosing around the kitchen area. “He’s sneaky,” the woman said, as she ran to catch the dog. “He knows how to make a fast food grab. Not of fast food, but a fast grab.”

“I know what you meant.”

“Now I’m blathering, aren’t I? Stopped lecturing. Started blathering.” He could tell she liked feeling the word blathering roll off her tongue. “My name is Iris Green, by the way.”

“And I’m Harry MacLeod. I call myself the Honey-Do man.”

“What? After the melon?”

“No. I’m a handyman. When a woman needs a job done, she says, ‘Honey, do this,’ or ‘honey, do that.’ I’m the guy she calls in when there’s no honey.”

Iris smiled. “It’s nice to meet you, Harry,” she said, holding out her hand to shake his. He took it, then quickly dropped it.

She looked down at the dog, “Come on, Max, we’ll go home and rustle up some dinner.”

He watched her disappear into the undergrowth.

Usually after being discovered, he would move camp deeper into the underbrush and carefully cover the evidence of his presence on the old site, brushing away footprints and propping up bent branches, scattering leaves. This time he didn’t.

Chapter Two

Oscar, a three-toed box turtle, stood in the doorway of the little house on the edge of the chicken wire enclosure. He surveyed the world before moving forward, teetered on the edge of the threshold, then dropped the half-step down into the grass. Little Mama, a Gulf Coast turtle, basked under the red floodlights. Big Mama was taking a bath in the big plastic planter saucer. But Shelley, the tamest of the turtles, was nowhere to be seen. Usually he came to greet Iris when she fed them in the morning.

Iris put down the dish of food-mashed banana, wet dog food, and some spinach leaves, lifted the top off the waist-high chicken wire enclosure, and climbed in. Parting the vegetation like hair, she began to search through the weeds and geraniums looking for Shelley. He liked to hide under a large fern, but he was not there. Nor was he under the two-by-four frame that supported the bottom of the enclosure. No sign of him. Had he escaped?

She walked around the enclosure walls, examining them for holes, but no holes existed. He couldn’t have burrowed under the concrete blocks that bordered the wall, she thought. Or he never had before. Maybe incarceration in the enclosure had driven him to tunnel mightily. If So though, wouldn’t there be an escape hole somewhere on the perimeter? And she saw none.

Someone—or something—must have lifted him out. Shelley—her favorite, a common box turtle with legs marked with bright red and orange and a hopeful upward tilt of his head when she opened the top of the cage, looking for the worm that sometimes dropped from his heaven.

She went to the street, the most dangerous place for Shelley to be. Two cars drove up to let off children for the pre-school next door. A chunky woman with tousled hair and a red purse was leaning over the pre-school fence. Iris couldn’t see her face. She thought it was probably one of the mothers who hated to leave their kids in day-care and hung around watching from afar. Iris’s friend, Francie Ryan, who had owned the center for more than twenty years, discouraged mothers from dillydallying on the street. The children did better when they knew their mothers had gone home, she said. The street was empty of everything else except a discarded Big Mac bag and a few garbage cans. No Shelley.

Iris went back down to the enclosure and moved out in semi-circles around it to see if by some chance Shelley had found a way out. When she spotted the shell half-hidden under the rosemary in the little herb garden below the enclosure, she smiled. Shelley thought that when his head was hidden, the rest of him was, too. When she came closer, she expected him to respond to the vibrations from her footsteps, to rise up on his legs, ready to move. Or to close up further, pulling his plastron tighter, only a slight movement but one that she knew well. He didn’t move at all.

Worry speeded her steps. She reached down, gripped the shell, tilted it toward her. A scream ripped from her throat at what she saw. A bloody neck stuck out, from the hole in the shell where Shelley’s head should be. At first she stood, frozen, holding the dead shell in her hand. Her body trembled in cold shock. She sat down on the ground, stroking the shell, keening, a long, low wail.

Francie stuck her head over the fence. “Iris! What’s wrong?” Her voice was high, childlike—it came from teaching pre-schoolers.

Iris, head down, held up Shelley’s body. “Someone chopped Shelley’s head off.”

“Who would do such a thing?” cried Francie. “I’m coming over.”

Iris laid Shelley down, wiped her eyes with a dirty hand. Then stood, to be on a level with Francie, took a deep breath, ready to face her friend.

Francie walked up to the road and over to the gate, then loped down the path, flowered dress flowing, freckled face anxious. She enwrapped Iris in a hug that lasted too long. Francie’s thin arms held a kind of tensile strength—Iris felt like a package strapped with some of that plastic wrapping tape that had to be cut with a scissors. Francie’s bony body was warm and damp. Iris held herself stiff, but not so stiff that Francie would think she was being rejected. The last thing she wanted was Francie’s ready sympathy, yet she didn’t want to hurt her. Hadn’t there been times when that very sympathy had saved Iris from black despair?

“He probably didn’t suffer,” Francie said, finally letting go and standing back a little, but not far enough.

“How do you know? Try having your head cut off!” said Iris, before she could stop herself. Francie’s face crumpled, and Iris felt sorry. Francie was only trying to be comforting.

“Shelley had a good life,” Francie said.

“Turtles are supposed to live to a hundred. He was young,” Iris replied.

“He’s with the Creator now. Maybe having a nice worm?”

“Please, Francie! No. You spend too much time with those little kids.” Iris ripped some rosemary branches off a bush, leaving the stubs jagged and broken. She laid the branches over what was left of Shelley, and went up the lot to the turtle enclosure. What could have happened to Shelley? Someone must have lifted the lid off and taken him out, then killed him. Who would do that? A fanatic from a Satanic cult—and in that case, some ritual would have surrounded the death. Or an unknown enemy. Or an insane person. “Maybe it was some teenager on his way to serial murder who did it,” she said, feeling another wail gathering in her throat.

“Be reasonable, Iris. It could have been an animal that did it,” Francie said. “Maybe Max.”

“No, not Max. In the first place, he wouldn’t. In the second place, he couldn’t get at the turtles. The mesh is too fine, and how could he lift the lid, then put it back? Maybe you’re right about a wild animal, though. One with clever hands who could lift the lid.” Iris seized on the idea—she wanted the killer to be an animal. That would make Shelley’s death more natural, less ghastly.

“Is there a way you could find out?” said Francie, who, once she had given obeisance to her New Age philosophy, was a very practical woman.

“The Turtle and Tortoise Society would know,” said Iris. “I’ll go inside and call them.”

“You’re hurting, I know. You should cry. That’s more important than finding stupid information,” said Francie.

Not on your life, not even in front of you, my dear friend, thought Iris. Standing stiffly, she began to talk of other things, while Francie steadfastly watched her. Then, unable to bear the wall between them, she said, “You know me, Francie. I just can’t be emotional in front of people. Never have been able to. When my grandfather died, I was eight, and my parents let me go to the funeral. I thought everyone in the funeral home—it smelled like mildew—was looking at me, waiting for me to cry. I couldn’t. Later I heard my aunt Terry say, ‘That child has the coldest heart.’ That made me cry, hiding in a corner. You see?” She didn’t say that when she was older, she wondered about it—did she have a cold heart? Nor did she say that she knew Francie was just trying in her way to help, but she couldn’t submit to Francie’s ministrations, in which she could not believe, even if they were true to Francie.

Francie took a step forward. “I’ll go so you can be alone,” she said.

“Thank you, Francie,” Iris said and went down the walk and into the house.

The number for the Turtle and Tortoise Society was in a list of addresses on her workroom computer, along with the addresses of ethologists and animal behaviorists. The list was a necessary resource for her job as a writer of newsletters for the Zoo at Balboa Park. She paid the experts to answer her questions and check the newsletter for accuracy.

“Raccoons,” said the authoritative voice of the female volunteer on the other end after Iris had explained what had happened.


“They like to bite the heads off turtles. Unfortunately.”

Shocked, Iris tried unsuccessfully to banish the image—a raccoon holding Shelley, helpless, in front of its mouth like a sandwich. She heard the tightness in her voice as she forced sound from her tightened throat. “I knew about foxes killing turtles, but raccoons? I don’t even know if raccoons live around here. I imagine that they do, but I’m not much of a night owl.”

“Where’s that? Where do you live?” came the disembodied voice.

“Cardiff. Up the coast from San Diego. North County.”

“Oh, yes! They love the coast.”

“Do they? What’s the attraction?” If she kept asking questions, then she might be able to dim that horrible scene in her mind.

“Oh, yes. What kind of pen do you have?”

She described it: “I built it myself. Chicken wire. Not very level—I used metal braces from Home Depot to join the two-by-two wood supports—but still. It has a little house attached, heated with two red flood lights. It’s landscaped—ferns, geraniums, and some weeds.” She knew she was babbling.

“The red for the floodlights is good—anything else hurts their eyes.”

“I know that,” said Iris, annoyance, unwanted, poking up over her grief. “Why else would I have used them?”

“How many turtles do you have?” the voice persisted. A member of the turtle police.

“Four. No three, without Shelley.”

“And how much space do you have?”

She looked out the window at the enclosure. “About twelve square feet.”

“Good, but not enough. You need to give them enough space to run.”

“To run?” At first she was incredulous, then she realized that turtles did indeed run. She’d seen hers run—they could really move when they wanted to. Shelley, for instance.

“They need at least twenty-five square feet. The wire mesh has to be no more than a quarter inch. Raccoons have long, skinny arms—they can squeeze their arms into small spaces and reach far inside. You’ll have to lock your pen. And use a key lock, not a combination lock.”


“Raccoons turn the lock and listen to the tumblers. They can figure out the combinations.”

“Really?” Holding the phone away, Iris stifled a laugh, and that made tears come into her eyes.

“I’m not kidding.” The loud, severe voice jumped over the distance between the phone and Iris’s ear.

Maybe not, Iris thought, as tears fell, but you aren’t exactly all there upstairs, either, lady, as she thanked the woman and hung up. Then she put the surviving turtles in an aquarium in the back bedroom with a little aluminum pie plate of water. They moved around uncertainly on the bit of outdoor carpet she had laid on the aquarium floor. Not ideal, she thought, but it would keep them safe.

She had done all she could to take care of things for the moment.

Without anything to distract her, the horror of what had happened surged through her. She flung herself on her bed and began to sob. Max jumped up beside her, laid his head on her arm, and looked into her face. “It’s okay, Max,” she said, burrowing her hand into his fur. “It’s okay. Shelley’s dead.” She hadn’t cried this way at the death of her parents. What was this? Guilt because she hadn’t taken proper care of her charges? Or was she so impoverished in her emotional life that the death of a reptile could throw her into black despair? No. No matter what, she would have loved that small creature with his jaunty but lumbering gait. He was unique.

Exhausted from crying, she rose to blow her nose and wipe her eyes. Then she went to her closet, where she reached for a box full of empty smaller boxes on the shelf above the hanging clothes. She chose a medium-sized box that had once held a small color scanner and smoothed an old piece of red velvet that had belonged to her grandmother inside the box as a lining. She took the box to the yard.

Lizzie, her calico cat, snoozed on the top of the turtle enclosure—it was warm from the flood lights, and she liked it there. When Iris approached, Lizzie stood, arched her back, stretched out, and jumped down. “Oh, Liz,” said Iris, “Shelley’s dead.” The cat rubbed her head against Iris’s leg, then followed Iris to the herb garden. Iris lifted the rosemary branches and picked Shelley’s body up. “See? It’s poor Shelley,” she said, lowering it to the level of Lizzie’s nose. Lizzie’s body tensed, her eyes widened, she jumped backwards, then turned and ran.

“Oh,” said Iris, filled with sorrow. She put Shelley in the box. The moldy, dark smell of damp earth rose into her nostrils as she dug a hole, put the box in it, and covered it over. “Goodbye, little guy,” she said and sat down by the grave, letting her tears fall into the dirt.

Finally she stood and considered the enclosure. The thought of building a second one now was beyond her. She could if she had to, but she was up against a deadline on the next newsletter—it was about chimpanzees. No time for enclosure-building. She’d have to get a carpenter. Immediately she thought of Harry, the Honeydo Man.

And that’s how it all began. With a death, and the setup for a second one.

Chapter Three

A band of crows cawed, a bird in the brush sang its complicated song, and the murmur of traffic from Manchester Avenue escalated to a roar as commuters funneled into I-5, the freeway from San Diego to Los Angeles. Harry stirred in his sleeping bag and opened his eyes. His head was wet. He looked up at the tent ceiling. Beads of condensation dotted the cloth. Wondering what mathematical principle dictated the process, he watched the drops as they took shape, becoming rounder and rounder, then, one by one, elongated and fell of their own weight.

He coughed. The spasm put pressure on his full bladder. He stretched and listened for alien sounds. Nothing but engines and birds, with a background noise of pounding surf. High tide. Satisfied that all was normal, he extracted himself from the sleeping bag. As usual, he’d slept in his jeans, just in case he had to leave the camp quickly. As he peed against a tree trunk, he remembered the scene in Cannery Row where the men got up, farted, peed, then went about their day’s business. I’m a bum like them, he thought, and smiled. He put on a sweat shirt, gathered clean clothes from a shelf, put them in his backpack, and walked the few minutes to the water’s edge. He coughed again. The cough was worrisome. He’d had it for three weeks. It wouldn’t go away.

A layer of fog lay in a veil close to the water all the way across the lagoon. The heads of cattails floated on it, and a cormorant sat on a squat pole that seemed magically to have levitated. The air was thick and still, muffling sounds. Here, right on the bank of the lagoon, in the fog, with water lapping gently, he could barely hear the traffic. A hawk glided in the clear air above the fog, circling, looking for prey on the sloping bluff covered with chaparral. The edges of its wing feathers separated and banked as it made delicate adjustments in concert with the air.

This morning anything seemed possible. It was the fog, obscuring things. He would have liked to watch the lagoon for a while but it was time to start the day. A job. The enclosure for Iris. She’d come looking him up after dark, flashlight in hand. When she told him what had happened, he had felt it in his gut. He knew what it was like to be a turtle: to feel the heaviness of a shell enclosing fear yet hampering the terrible urge to flee from pain.

He walked to his truck, which was parked on the dirt margin of the road, and unlocked it. The interior smelled of burned oil and old air, but the engine started immediately. He drove the three miles to the YMCA, where he always did the 7:00 a.m. swim, laps in the intermediate lane, crawl, breaststroke, backstroke, sometimes the butterfly. It had cost him three hundred dollars to join the Y, cheap at the price. The membership came with a locker, where he stowed his backpack after putting on his bathing suit.

The water was warm on his body and smelled of chlorine. Only for the first minute or two was he aware of the other people in his lane. A woman with a powerful crawl who never varied her stroke. A girl, no more than sixteen, wearing nose clips and fins, who fooled around, sometimes swimming underwater. The man who liked to dominate the lane by swimming past everyone, churning up the water. On the fourth lap, Harry entered his own rhythm and forgot them; he only occasionally raised his head above the water to see to the smoky, damp air and hear the muffled watery echoes of the others’ splashing strokes.

In the shower afterwards, he let water sluice over his body for several minutes. It was partly to leach away the chlorine, partly just for the sensual pleasure of it. The shower room smelled faintly of mildew and soap. The cough, deeper now, racked his body. He brought it under control. Perhaps he was allergic to the mildew. If the cough didn’t go away, he’d have to do something about it. He dried himself with the towel he carried with him and dressed in the clean clothes he’d stashed in his backpack.

Ordinarily after his swim Harry could have gone back to his camp to make breakfast-Irish oatmeal and bacon. But he had heard the urgency in Iris’s voice the night before, so he made do with a bagel and a carton of whole milk from the market.

It’s not a bad life, he thought, in one of the rare moments when he let himself reflect about such things. Minimal. Head above water. No complications.


Iris and Geraldine Bernhardt were drinking coffee on the leafy back deck when Harry showed up, right at nine. Max got up from under the glass-topped table and, tail wagging his entire rear end, approached Harry, and pushed his head into his legs. Harry put his metal tool box down at his feet and reached down to stroke Max’s ears.

“Max is not usually that friendly,” Geraldine said, holding her coffee cup out in front of her, always alert for clues.

“He is with Harry,” Iris said.

“I gave Max an incentive, don’t forget,” said Harry, looking over at her.

“True, but I don’t think his friendship is bought that easily,” Iris replied. Geraldine swished her coffee in the cup, as if she were swishing her tail. Her eyes narrowed and shone.

“Geraldine, meet Harry MacLeod, the Honey-Do Man,” Iris said. “Harry, Geraldine Bernhardt, my long-time friend and neighbor. I’ve known her since before her son, Pete, was born. Pete’s almost twenty now.”

“Do you try to do honey’s every bidding?” asked Geraldine.

“No,” he said, with no expression on his face. “Only those biddings I am capable of satisfying. But I’m interrupting something.”

“I was just leaving,” said Geraldine, giving him a keen glance. She rose and stretched—she was all strong, smooth curves. She reminded Iris of one of those Russian dolls that nest inside an egg, only she was too dark and serious for that.

“Stick around,” Iris said to her. “I’m just going to go over with Harry what it is that I want done.”

“No. I’ve got to get home to make breakfast for Pete,” Geraldine said. “I’ll leave you two alone.”

“It’s not ‘you two.’ And can’t Pete make his own breakfast? He’s a big boy.”

“I like cooking for him. Besides, Alexandra’s coming over—we’re celebrating her latest A. Her GPA’s beginning to edge up to Pete’s. I’m making pancakes and sausage.”

“Will they both get Magna cum Laude?”

“Pete will probably get Summa. Fred would be proud.” Geraldine had tears in her eyes. She turned her head away.

“Alexandra is Pete’s girlfriend,” Iris explained to Harry, who was standing, still and patient, waiting for her, ready to work. His leather tool belt hung low on his angular hips—she saw a claw hammer, tape measure, screwdrivers, all tucked into their compartments. A thick, four-sided carpenter’s pencil stuck its head out of the pocket of his blue, ironed work shirt. The shirt was tucked in and bloused over his belt.

“I’ll call you later,” Geraldine said. She walked up the path and slammed the gate behind her.

Iris led Harry to the enclosure. “How do you iron your work shirts?” she asked, wondering why she dared ask this question of someone she barely knew.


“I take them out of the dryer at the laundromat just at the right time, then smooth them with my hands,” Harry said.

“Where did you learn that?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Is this it? The turtle enclosure?”

He walked around it, examining it carefully. Iris remembered the haste with which she had built it and felt apologetic. “I built it myself. It’s really crude. Didn’t bother with a foundation. Just surrounded it with concrete blocks. My neighbor found Oscar in her back yard, and I had to make a place for him to live.”


About me

Ann Elwood lives in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, with three cats, a desert tortoise, six box turtles, and a dog. She spent her childhood in Saddle River, New Jersey, and, after college, worked in New York City as a free-lance writer. In 1967, she moved to California, and in 1989, she graduated with a PhD in history from U.C.S.D. She now teaches history part-time at a state university, spends time with her animals, and writes the books she's always wanted to write but never had the time for.

Q. What books are you reading now?
Autumn by Ali Smith and Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro.
Q. When did you decide to become a writer?
I decided to become a writer when I was about nine or ten. At first I wrote poetry, nature poetry about trees and snow and water. My parents were alarmed. How would I ever make a living as a writer? Astonishingly, I actually did, but it wasn't poetry that brought in the money.
Q. Why do you write?
I write because I can't not write. Simple as that.

Next in:
Literature & Fiction
Elopement Risk
Sometimes life itself is a set of shackles.
The Souls of Wuhan
Show some guts, lead Mr. President!
Kitane, Bull Jumper
Courting and Catastrophe in the Bronze Age