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Authors: Jennifer L. Holm

Turtle in Paradise

BOOK: Turtle in Paradise
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ALSO BY JENNIFER L. HOLM
The Babymouse series (with Matthew Holm)
Boston Jane: An Adventure
Boston Jane: Wilderness Days
Boston Jane: The Claim
The Creek
Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf
Our Only May Amelia
Penny from Heaven
The Stink Files series (with Jonathan Hamel)

For Lindsey and Shana—
the original Diaper Gang

Contents

  1.
Rotten Kids

  2.
Paradise Lost

  3.
Lucky as an Orphan

  4.
The Conch Telegraph

  5.
Can You Spare a Nickel, Pal?

  6.
The Truth of the Matter

  7.
Terry and Pat

  8.
A Big, Happy Family

  9.
The Diaper Gang Knows

10.
The Man of the House

11.
Ladies Who Lunch

12.
Hard Times

13.
Believing in Monsters

14.
Lying, Stealing, No-Good Kids

15.
A Dream Come True

16.
The Rescue Party

17.
A Hollywood Ending

18.
Paradise Found

      
Author’s Note

      
Resources

      
Web Sites

      
Acknowledgments

conch
Pronunciation: ’känk, ’känch
Function: noun
1: any of various large spiral-shelled marine
gastropod mollusks (as of the genus
Strombus)
2:
often capitalized:
a native or resident of the
Florida Keys

—Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate
Dictionary
, 11th edition

June 1935

1
Rotten Kids

Everyone thinks children are sweet as Necco Wafers, but I’ve lived long enough to know the truth: kids are rotten. The only difference between grown-ups and kids is that grown-ups go to jail for murder. Kids get away with it.

I stare out the window as Mr. Edgit’s Ford Model A rumbles along the road, kicking up clouds of dust. It’s so hot that the backs of my legs feel like melted gum, only stickier. We’ve been driving for days now; it feels like eternity.

In front of us is a rusty pickup truck with a gang of dirty-looking kids in the back sandwiched between furniture—an iron bed, a rocking chair, battered pots—all tied up with little bits of fraying rope like a
spiderweb. A girl my age is holding a baby that’s got a pair of ladies’ bloomers tied on its head to keep the sun out of its eyes. The boy sitting next to her has a gap between his two front teeth. Not that this stops him from blowing spitballs at us through a straw. We’ve been stuck behind this truck for the last few miles, and our windshield is covered with wadded bits of wet newspaper.

A spitball smacks the window and Mr. Edgit hammers the horn with the palm of his hand. The no-good boy just laughs and sticks out his tongue.

“There oughta be a law. No wonder this country’s going to the dogs,” Mr. Edgit grumbles.

Mr. Edgit (“You can call me Lyle”) has a lot of opinions. He says folks in the Dust Bowl wouldn’t be having so much trouble if they’d just move near some water. He says he doesn’t think President Roosevelt will get us out of this Depression and that if you give someone money for not working why would they ever bother to get a job? But mostly Mr. Edgit talks about a new hair serum he’s selling that’s going to make him rich. It’s called Hair Today, and he’s a believer. He’s used the product himself.

“Can you see the new hair, Turtle?” he asks, pointing at his shiny bald head.

I don’t see anything. It must grow invisible hair.

Maybe Archie should start selling hair serum. If his pal Mr. Edgit’s anything to go by, most men would rather have hair than be smart. Archie’s a traveling salesman. He’s sold everything—brushes, gadgets, Bibles, you name it. Right now he’s peddling encyclopedias.

“I could sell a trap to a mouse,” Archie likes to say, and it’s the truth. Housewives can’t resist him. I know Mama couldn’t.

It was last May, one day after my tenth birthday, when I opened the door of Mrs. Grant’s house and saw Archie standing there. He had dark brown eyes and thick black hair brushed back with lemon pomade.

“Well, hello there,” Archie said to me, tipping his Panama hat. “Is the lady of the house at home?”

“Which lady?” I asked. “The ugly one or the pretty one?”

He laughed. “Why, ain’t you a sweet little thing.”

“I’m not sweet,” I said. “I slugged Ronald Caruthers when he tried to throw my cat in the well, and I’d do it again.”

Archie roared with laughter. “I’ll bet you would! What’s your name, princess?”

“Turtle,” I said.

“Turtle, huh?” he mused, stroking his chin. “I can see why. Got a little
snap
to you, don’t ya?”

“Who’s that you’re talking to, Turtle?” my mother called, coming to the door.

Archie smiled at Mama. “You must be the pretty lady.”

Mama put her hand over her heart. Otherwise it would have leaped right out of her chest. She fell so hard for Archie she left a dent in the floor.

Mama’s always falling in love, and the fellas she picks are like dandelions. One day they’re there, bright as sunshine—charming Mama, buying me presents—and the next they’re gone, scattered to the wind, leaving weeds everywhere and Mama crying.

But Mama says Archie’s different, and I’m starting to think she may be right. He keeps his promises, and he hasn’t disappeared yet. Even Smokey likes him, which is saying something, considering she bit the last fella Mama dated. Also, he’s got big dreams, which is more than I can say for most of them.

“Mark my words, princess,” Archie told me. “We’ll be living on Easy Street someday.”

That sounds swell to me, but even I know there’s gonna be a few bumps on the way to Easy Street, and I’m sitting right next to one of them.

“You’re like Little Orphan Annie and her dog,” Mr. Edgit says, eyeing Smokey, who’s curled up in my lap. “You know, Annie’s dog. What’s its name?”

How can someone have opinions on baldness and not know the name of Annie’s dog? She’s the most famous orphan on the radio and in the funny pages.

“You know, the dog that’s always with her …”

I look out the window.

“The one that’s always barking …”

“Sandy,” I say.

“Right, Sandy,” he says with a pleased look. “What does Sandy say, again?”

“Arf,”
I say.

“That’s good! Sandy says
arf
!” Mr. Edgit chortles. “Does your cat say
meow?”

I roll my eyes.

“What happened to your cat, anyhow?” he asks with a sidelong glance at Smokey. “She got the mange?”

“She got burned,” I say, smoothing my hand over Smokey’s ragged patches of fur.

“That why you call her Smokey?”

“No,” I say. “The name came first.”

“I still don’t understand why you couldn’t stay with that old dame,” Mr. Edgit says. “Place was a
mansion. Looked like something Shirley Temple would live in.”

Shirley Temple is this kid actress everyone’s calling “America’s Little Darling.” She has dimpled cheeks and ringlet curls and is always breaking into song or doing a dance number at the drop of a hat. Everyone thinks she’s the cutest thing ever.

I can’t stand her.

Real kids aren’t anything like Shirley Temple and I should know. Because Mama’s the housekeeper, we get free room and board. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except the rest of the house usually comes with kids. And they’re
never
nice to the housekeeper’s daughter.

There was twelve-year-old Sylvia Decker, who gave me her old doll and then told her mother that I stole it from her. We didn’t last very long there. And then there was Josephine Stark, who told all the kids at school that it was my job to clean the toilet. No one would play with me after that.

The worst, though, were the Curley boys—Melvin and Marvin. They thought it would be funny to light poor Smokey’s tail on fire and watch her run around. Mr. Curley didn’t believe me when I told him what his boys did, and he fired Mama on the spot. Like I said, kids are rotten.

Mama’s promised me that someday we’re going to live in our own home. We’ve got it all picked out, too. It’s a Sears mail-order house, from a kit. The Bellewood, Model #3304. This is what the brochure says:

The “Bellewood” is another happy combination of a well-laid-out floor plan with a modern attractive exterior. The design is an adaptation of a small English cottage
.

There’s a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom that comes with something called a “Venetian mirrored medicine case.” I don’t know what it is, but it sure sounds fancy. Still, we’re a long way from living in the Bellewood.

Mama says she’s lucky to have a job with Mrs. Budnick considering how tough times are. I don’t know how lucky I am, though. Mrs. Budnick shook her head when Mama brought our things over to her house.

“You didn’t say anything about a child. Children are noisy. I can’t abide noise,” Mrs. Budnick said, tapping her foot.

I asked Archie if I could stay with him.

“Princess,” he said, shaking his head, “I live in a
rooming house with a bunch of other men. I don’t think it’s exactly the kind of place a young lady should be, if you get my meaning.”

So now I’m on my way to Key West to live with Mama’s sister, Minerva, who I’ve never met. Mr. Edgit’s a pal of Archie’s, and since he was already going to Miami to meet with a fella about Hair Today, he offered to give me a ride. Also, he owes Archie a bunch of money. I guess Hair Today ain’t exactly an overnight success.

Mama thinks me going to Key West is a swell idea.

“You’ll love it, baby,” Mama told me. Mama’s good at looking at the sunny side of life. Her favorite song is “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries.”

I blame Hollywood. Mama’s watched so many pictures that she believes in happy endings. She’s been waiting her whole life to find someone who’ll sweep her off her feet and take care of her.

Me? I think life’s more like that cartoon by Mr. Disney—
The Three Little Pigs
. Some big bad wolf’s always trying to blow down your house.

Ahead of us, the pickup truck is swerving wildly. The kids in the back are clinging to the side.

“What’s that fella doing, anyway?” Mr. Edgit asks.

“I think his tire’s gone flat,” I say.

A moment later, the pickup truck pulls off to the side of the road in a cloud of dust.

We slow down beside the truck. There’s a worn-looking lady in the front seat staring straight ahead, a drooling toddler asleep on her lap. The fella behind the wheel is rubbing his eyes.

Mr. Edgit calls out the rolled-down window, “You need help there, buddy?”

“Do we look like we need help?” the boy in the back asks.

Mr. Edgit shakes his head. “Bunch of fools, this whole country,” he says, and we start to move again.

I lean out the window, looking back. The boy blows a spitball, but we’ve pulled away already. It falls short, landing in the road.

2
Paradise Lost

I’ve never been to Easton, Pennsylvania, but according to Mr. Edgit, I’m missing out.

“Best thing about Easton?” Mr. Edgit says. “We didn’t go in for Prohibition like the rest of the country. You could always get a drink in Easton.”

What is it with folks always talking about where they’re from? You could grow up in a muddy ditch, but if it’s
your
muddy ditch, then it’s gotta be the swellest muddy ditch ever.

Mama’s the worst. She’s always going on about how Key West is paradise—it’s beautiful, the weather’s perfect, there’s fruit dripping from trees. To hear her talk, you’d think the roads are paved
with chocolate, like something out of that dumb song Shirley Temple sings:

On the good ship lollipop
,

It’s a sweet trip to a candy shop

Where bonbons play

On the sunny beach of Peppermint Bay
.

BOOK: Turtle in Paradise
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