On my morning walk, I was gazing into the grass along the roadside, when a runner came up to see what I was looking at.
“A terrapin in the grass,” I said.
“That’s a terrapin?” the girl said. “It looks like a tortoise.”
“We call them ‘terrapins,’” I said, as the terrapin started to move.
“He’s climbing onto the road.”
“Let’s head him back home,” I replied, and turned him back toward the swamp. I paused as he walked toward home, then said, “I saw a cooter here, too, a couple of days ago.”
“Like a terrapin, but flat and black, sometimes called ‘snapping turtles,’” I replied.
“Cooters can get as big around as a dishpan, but this one, standing here on the road, was only about as big around as a teacup. He must have set his heart on crossing the blacktop, too.” I paused.
“I thought about picking him up and turning him back toward home,” I continued, “but for some reason, I gave him a voice in the matter, and asked him, ‘Do you really want to cross that road?’
“He turned his head, then looked up at me to me as if to say, ‘Yes, I want to cross it. And don’t you try to stop me. I want to, I’m going to, and I’m starting to, right now.’
“A cooter does what he wants to; he will not turn loose your finger until a thunderstorm comes up, even if he gets tired of phalange and wants some vegetation. So, I didn’t tell him he would be safer in the swamp, or that a car might crush him before he could get across this road, but instead left him to his venture and walked away.
“I didn’t think about him as I passed back by on the other side,” I continued. “But the next day, I decided if he made it to the other side of the road I would pick him up and carry him back to the edge of the swamp, whether he liked it or not. But I didn’t see him there, instead I saw only a dark spot on the road ahead of me. When I got to it, I saw he had walked only a few inches onto the pavement, before he was hit. I pushed his mangled shell back across the shoulder and left him right-side-up in the grass, facing home.”
“He was very foolish,” the girl said.
I nodded, “Listening to his heart.”
She looked at me.
“He was doing what he wanted to do,” I said. “Maybe the swamp water tasted bad, or he was upset with his mother or father, or maybe he just liked danger, and wanted to prove to the rest of the cooters he could get across without being smashed.” I looked away. “But he was following his heart.”
Then the girl said, “My husband … I always fix him coffee for breakfast, but today he did not drink it. He told me I never fixed him juice or toast. Why couldn’t I ever fix him juice or toast? he asked me. That made me sad.”
She paused to explain. “Was he acting like the cooter?”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think he wants something … other than coffee or toast and orange juice.”
She spoke again before I could respond. “I think he’d like to be appreciated at work.”
“And he complained about breakfast?”
“Right before he left for work,” she replied. “But he shouldn’t take out that unhappiness on me.”
“Do you think he’s your enemy?”
“In this, I do.”
“I don’t think so.”
“If he’s not, who is?”
“Let me answer with a question. Did you ever see a cartoon character with an angel on one shoulder …?” I trailed off.
“No, but I saw Homer Simpson, with a ‘Good Homer’ on one shoulder and a ‘Bad Homer’ on the other.”
“Which one does Homer listen to, when he doesn’t know what to do?”
“I think he mostly does what ‘Bad Homer’ wants.”
“So Homer’s got cooter-itis too?”
“Cooter-itis, obeying the bad voice, and ignoring the good one.”
“All I know is the little cooter should have stayed at home,” she replied.
“If he had stayed in the swamp a little longer, he might have heard the ‘Good Cooter’ on his shoulder.”
“And he might have said, ‘How’d you get that there, G.C.?’” she smiled, taking up the young cooter’s role.
“A very long time,” I said, in G.C.’s voice
“How’d you get so old, G.C.?” young cooter asked.
“My Daddy told me ‘Think, before you act.’ So I did that, and I didn’t get squished, and I got to be old.”
“Squished?” she laughed, falling out of character.
“Mashed, dead,” I said in my G.C. voice. “Trucks are fast, cooters slow. Cooter shells are strong; truck tires stronger.”
“But I want to see what’s on the other side of the blacktop,” said young cooter.
“Don’t listen to ‘Bad Cooter,’” I said. “B.C. wants to get you in trouble, and maybe even kill you in the bargain. Pay attention to me, and what your mama taught you. And use your head.”
“No. I’m listening to B.C.,” the childlike voice said.
Then, with our impromptu drama complete, we stood quiet for a moment.
Finally, the girl said, “You know, maybe we should listen to the good voice, not only before we are about to do bad, but also before we are about to do good.”
He words startled me, for they addressed the dilemma of the four-legged cooter, as well as that of the two-legged one.
“Thank you,” I said to her back as she ran down the road. “Thank you very much.”
But I appreciated her words even more that very afternoon, when, paying attention to the wrong voice, I let myself become angry.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.