I used to be a regular at the pet store on the second floor of my local mall, down by Sears. Whenever I had to go with my mom to run errands, at the end of our quest, I would drag her to the pet shop. I gaped at the squirmy puppies – all cartilage – and kittens no more than eyes and fluff, along with the usual sickly goldfish and colorful, preachy birds. What got me though was that they had tortoises. In a hexagon plexiglass-walled pen in the middle of the store, filled with sawdust chips and a miniature wooden house, a dozen desert tortoises casually plodded, frequently pushing into each other, like bumper cars toward the end of the ride when the mechanisms wind down. Their earthy brown-and-gold shells made them seem like boulders that had come to life, rolling about at their own will. I admired the methodical and slow yet determined pace that they kept, much like senior citizens who walked laps between Lord & Taylor and the food court.
After months of convincing, bartering, and saving up my allowance, I assembled the 60 dollars – a truly extraordinary sum for a sixth grader – to purchase one of these tortoises. He came home in a cardboard carrier, bumping and thumping the whole car ride. At home, in his glass aquarium, I would sit so close to the heat lamp that it threatened to burn my skin, as I stared with fascination at his beaky face, beady black eyes, and wrinkled mouth and neck. He reminded me of a late-in-life Clint Eastwood. He clunked all over his enclosure, brazen, bold and rarely tucked into his hinged, brown and yellow shell. Even when sleeping, often his arms and legs would sprawl out. This was a turtle without fear.
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