Young little Marky had a large tattered book bag strapped onto his small back. Every so often, he would take it off and set it down on the sidewalk. He’d do so carefully, because he didn’t want the concrete to scrape the already tattered nylon bottom of his bag. He’d take it off and have a rest every time he was in front of the big yellow house with the cute little mule that stood guard in the front lawn. It wasn’t a large lawn, and it wasn’t a pretty house, but Marky knew that there was something good inside.
He knew this because the house belonged to Janet Shurl-something. She was always coming to school with a great big smile, and it was one of those smiles that he couldn’t help but catch on his own face whenever she was around. During recess, she always had something nice to share with someone. Some days, it was the orange crackers with peanut butter in the middle. Other days, it would be animal crackers. Most of the time, Miguel would try to bully her into giving him her snack, even though he had even fancier snacks—those yummy crackers and cheese that came with the little red plastic thingie.
And most of the time, Janet would tell him, “Go blow it out your earhole.” Little Mark thought that he would probably get a big red smack across his chubby little cheek if he ever said that to anyone, even if that someone was trying to take his snack. He thought that Janet was awfully brave.
He sometimes waited in front of her house for a while, secretly wishing that Mrs Shurl-something would invite him inside for a glass of milk and a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, the ones that Janet brought to school every Wednesday. But most of the time, he caught his breath, twisted himself back into the book bag straps, picked up his load, and continued on his way.
Every day on his way home, Mark would walk past a side street—an alleyway, really. He looked carefully down the street, all the way down as mommy had taught him just a few months ago, because there might be cars or bad people doing bad things, she’d said. Most of the time, there was nothing there.
But today, something caught his eye. Off in the distance, on the other end of the street, he saw a little gray-green something. To get a better look at the strange something, he leaned forward as far as he could without tipping over, sticking his neck out.
He saw, after a few moments of confusion, that it was a turtle. Though he wanted to go pet it, he blinked blankly at it and wondered what a turtle was doing in the alleyway. It looked out of place, but he decided to pay it no mind.
The next day, on the way home, he saw the turtle again in the same spot, all the way down on the other end of the street. He thought that it might be hungry, so he thought for a moment about what to feed it. It occurred to him that turtles might like to eat leaves, and so he looked around for a leaf. Alas, there were no trees nearby. Instead, he picked some leaves off the ground by the tree near his home and tucked them away in his arithmetic notebook so that he could feed the turtle the next day.
And so when the next day came, young little Mark set down his heavy book bag at the mouth of the alleyway and opened up his notebook to take the three yellow leaves out. He looked down the alleyway to see if there were any bad people doing bad things. He wasn’t quite sure what bad things anyone could do in an alleyway, but it was better to be safe than sorry, so he looked intensely again, searching for bad things.
When he was fairly certain that no bad things were in the alleyway, he walked towards the other end where the turtle was sitting. Only this time, a car turned into the alleyway. Luckily for young Mark, he had only taken a few steps into the alley, so he was able to step back out in no time.
Since the car was creeping its way down the street, Mark packed his things and went back home, hoping that the turtle would be there the next day.
When he checked the alleyway the next day, his heart skipped a beat. His eyes searched for the turtle, but he could not find it. Had it walked away and found another home? He could understand that it might move away to some place where turtles belonged, but he fretted nonetheless.
Frantically, he focused his eyes, directing his vision as best as he could on something so far away.
And then, there was relief.
His eyes found the turtle. It was hiding underneath a filthy black plastic bag full of holes. He sighed with relief. After scanning the alleyway for bad things, he walked carefully down the alley to the other end of the street, skipping over the potholes, until he reached the plastic bag. He paused there for a moment, standing perfectly still, forgoing the luxury of breathing. Then, gingerly, he removed the bag and looked upon the turtle.
It was gray and green, a little mossy on the top, and it had a large hump in the middle. Unfortunately, it was also very much a large rock that was shaped like a turtle. Mark sat down next to it anyway and, hunched over, he lamely tried to feed it the leaves he had collected. And though his shoulders stooped, he would go to visit Mister Turtle and pet him every day after school, until the leaves fell rustled and brown. ¶
This is the ‘final’ revision that I made after I had this story workshopped by my peers. Some folks interpreted as a cute and adorable story, whereas a few others picked up on the loneliness. A few adroit readers even picked up on the fact that Mark is much like the turtle. However they interpreted it, they all said that Mark was likeable, that he “wins ours hearts” and “grabs our sympathies.” Needless to say, I was delighted to hear such praise.
One person criticized that we are not privvy to Mark’s situation: “Where are his parents?” Despite it being a criticism, I was happy to hear that this was how people felt, because it was what I had set out to do. More importantly, it is also the basic device that I use in my novel: I wish the reader to feel the distance. My readers did indeed feel the distance, and they wanted to be closer to the story, closer to Mark. Many of them wanted a first-person account and asked me if I had considered doing it in first-person. I replied that my desired effect was to create that sense of apartness.
This is all completely wonderful news to me because it means that I am capable of writing a story that people feel a connection to, something that people were happy to read and engage with. Such comments meant that they all wanted more. They were drawn into the story and demanded to be alongside Mark, to delve into his little world.
With that said, there were a few other criticisms that, retrospectively, I completely agree with. For one, people felt that the whole bit with Janet was a little out of place because the story didn’t include anything else about Janet: she appeared only in one paragraph and was irrelevant. To be fair, I did not write the story as a short story. Rather, I wrote it as a piece that might be a part of a larger work, like a novel.
Another criticism was that I broke from the overall tone of the story in the last paragraph: “Unfortuunately, it was also very much a large rock…” One person said that here “we step out of his head.” There is also apparently a lack of a conflict. To me, the conflict is internal and my piece is all about the absences, but I can see that most people would have difficulty finding the conflict. Finally, many people wanted more description of place. The truth of the matter is that I had a page constraint and that I couldn’t fit that much detail into the story within those constraints (remember, I’m a verbose sort of writer). But even so, I must agree with them: the story, as it stands, feels a little ‘floaty’. That is, it doesn’t seem grounded in a concrete place because I haven’t painted the picture in the reader’s mind.
Ultimately, I was delighted to have my work read, and I gained much confidence in knowing that my writing largely achieves my desired effects. This workshop was such a massive encouragement, and has sparked my desire and will to finish writing my novel once again.