Things that Die


Six weeks after I move to Tucson, I drive over a tortoise in the middle of a city street.

In California, I didn’t run over things, except maybe curbs.

I’m meeting my new and so-far only friend, Penny, to go for a walk in Reid Park around the Tucson Zoo, which is shuttered due to the pandemic.

Somewhere in between me waving at her and turning into the parking lot, she picks up the tortoise and carries it over to the shade.

She walks over to me, glancing at her hands as if they’re dirty. “Do you have any wipes?”

I don’t. I should. The hoarders have bought up all of the wipes and hand sanitizer. And I’m not fully on board that this thing is real. Arizona’s numbers are tiny and we’ve yet to shelter in place.


She frowns and says gently, “You ran over a turtle.”

“You’re kidding me.”

I didn’t see or hear anything, didn’t feel a thump. And, turtles have hard, protective shells. And wait, they bleed?

Penny is wiping her hands with a rag from her car.

I try to practice what my last shrink told me to do during my divorce: finding my breath to slow down my thoughts.

“Is it still alive?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “It’s not looking good. I put it over there to give it a calm, cool place to…”

I follow her over to the Palo Verde tree. The air is still. Last I looked the temperature was 95 degrees.

The tree is ready to burst into electric yellow blooms. Under it sits what could be mistaken for a rock, if you weren’t looking for a turtle. The shell is cracked down the center. At the split are two thin streams of blood.

“Can’t we call someone?” My voice catches.

“We can try. There’s a wildlife sanctuary at the end of Speedway. It’s about a 30-minute drive.”

She calls and they tell her to bring the tortoise in.

We put him in the back of my car on a soft blanket I keep there for my dog. I’m thankful I’ve left him at home.

On the way, I see a church. The sign out front says, Experience God’s Love.

I’m not religious. But I’m tempted to pray, like I prayed that somehow my marriage wouldn’t run out of road, when it was so obvious it already had. Like so many people pray for people and animals to live, and they don’t.

Like maybe god isn’t in the business of stopping death. And love takes its own road.

At the next red light, I unbuckle my seat belt and turn around to check on the tortoise. He’s pulled into his broken shell, all of him. Head, tail, feet back and front.

Horns blare.

Years ago, when I was more than half the age I am now, when marriage, a kid, and mortgage were nowhere in my future, I traveled alone into Central Turkey. There, I witnessed two tortoises mating. The male had pressed the female nearly vertical, against a rock. They were hissing. Orgasmic, hissing.

I looked around for any other humans watching the strange act of lovemaking. But there was only the click of shells, the dense heat, and a tremble of something like a breeze.

In Far East Tucson, the tortoise is breathing, but just barely. His tail and left hind leg are out of the shell, limp and almost lifeless.

“He’s not going to make it,” I say.

“We tried.”

The volunteer at the reception desk hands me a form to fill out and tells us we can call in later.

We take our walk and agree to meet again at the Zoo, walk there, soon. Penny is hoping the baby elephant will be born by then. Maybe we’ll get to see the new calf live, instead on webcam.

Driving home, I call the wild care facility. While the receptionist gets the vet on the phone, I fantasize that they’ve stitched up the little guy, applied magic shell glue and put him on healing meds.

The vet gives it to me straight. “It had a broken spine and hip. We euthanized him so he didn’t have to suffer. No telling how long it would’ve taken. You did the right thing.”

The old tightness stirs in my left hip, pelvis and tailbone. Parts that carry our grief, a massage therapist informed me, once.

That night, from the porch of my 500-square foot bungalow, I watch the fire-set. It’s like that, the sun going down. Spreads slowly along the wide, wide streets; orange and pinks and purples filling in the empty places, turning the stucco houses a glow there’s no color for.

Two weeks later, Penny sends me a text to schedule a day to meet for a walk, along with a link to a video. It’s the elephant calf, all 295 pound, practicing fanning her precious ears.

The numbers are increasing in Arizona, not so much here in Pima County. Restaurants and nail salons are closed. The governor has decided golf courses are essential businesses.

My niece and nephew will soon lose their grandfather, Sam, an avid golfer. His friends will pay their respects from open windows of parked cars. Sam’s widow, my niece and nephew, and a priest will be at the gravesite.

The walk with Penny is uneventful. She is wearing a mask. I’ve found hand sanitizer at the pharmacy, mixed onsite. Walgreen’s on Speedway has it sometimes, one-per-person only.

Penny points out yucca species, rivaling Dr. Seuss’s creations. Saguaro that take 35 years to produce their first spring blooms. The Ocotillo shrub. It has stick-like branches that covered in thorns from ground to sky, until a sudden burst of scarlet petals.

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