The Road

By Angela Tung

Memoir

The turtle is the biggest dead animal I’ve ever seen.  I’ve seen plenty of birds – a smashed robin at curbside, a wren worn to its skeleton in our garden – but they were nothing like this. Shell smashed, each square outlined by orange flesh. I think of pumpkins, destroyed, on Mischief Night.

“Who’s gonna clean it up?” someone asks.

“The Russos,” Barbara says. “Or the Tungs. Since it’s in front of their houses.”

The Russo boy is only in kindergarten so he isn’t at the bus stop with us older kids, but we are, the Tungs, my brother and I. We’re there, yet the kids speak of us as if we aren’t.

“What do you think killed it?” a boy asks.

“A van,” someone offers.

“A truck.”

“A big rig!”

Another boys scoffs, “A big rig wouldn’t even fit down this street.”

“The Tungs or Russos should clean it up,” Barbara says again, definitively, as though she has final say.

Neither of us answers. We both hate and fear Barbara, and never talk to her.

Our street is small and quiet. You can roller skate up and down, up and down, and never worry about cars. Now we stand right in the middle and stare at the turtle till the bus comes.



“There’s a big dead turtle in front of our house,” I tell Noah.

It’s Saturday, and we’re at Noah’s house. We play together every week when our parents get together for mah-jongg, but we don’t go to the same school. I wish we did. “How big?” Noah asks without looking up. He’s putting together an elaborate race track for his Matchbox cars.

“Really big,” I say.

“This big!” says my brother, spreading his arms wide.

“And it’s orange,” I say.

Now Noah looks up. “Orange? Turtles are green.”

“Some parts are orange.”  I pause, then add: “I saw a fly eat it.”  This isn’t true but it could be.

Now he looks intrigued. Usually it’s at Noah’s house that we find something new. Atari, an expensive board game, the newest Star Wars action figure. Now it’s at ours.

“I want to see,” he says, then jumps up and runs into the next room. “Mom! Can we go to Angela and Greg’s house?”

“We can go tomorrow,” his mother says over the roaring of the mah-jongg tiles.

“No, now! ”

Ai ya, don’t fuss.”

He comes back pouting. “We can go tomorrow. Let’s play capture the flag.”



Noah’s backyard is vast.  Ours is cut off by a wood, which makes our yard seem small, but we like walking in the wood, pretending we’re in Narnia or Teribithia, emerging with our shoes covered in burrs.

In front of Noah’s house is a a highway. Cars drive fast, and in both directions. No one needs to tell us not to go there.

Whenever we go out to play, Noah’s neighbors emerge to join us. Billy is my brother’s age, and is both the tallest and dumbest of everyone. He looks normal but talks slowly, and has a hard time understanding the rules of new games. He cries when Noah yells at him.

Billy’s yard is divided from Noah’s by a chainlink fence. Beyond the fence, we can see his yard scattered with toys, broken bicycles, moldy-looking lawn chairs. Billy’s beautiful but dirty white husky, Sasha, follows us barking as we run up and down Noah’s yard.

“Careful,” Billy says whenever any of us gets too close. “She bites.”

Richard and Robert are brothers and Chinese like us, but their parents don’t play mah-jongg. They don’t let Richard and Robert watch TV during the week, only on weekends, and they don’t let Robert, who is hyperactive, have sugar. I think Richard must not have sugar either, he’s so skinny. He wears glasses and not only has to get straight A’s, he has to get 100%’s on all his tests, or else he gets into trouble.

Robert is less smart. He’s only six, but I can already tell. He looks and sounds like a monkey, chattering in a high-pitched voice I can barely understand. His nostrils are often plugged with green-gray snot.

We play all afternoon, stopping only to dash into our houses and scarf down dinner. We play until long after dark.

After dark we catch lightning bugs. Noah and I are both good at this. We pluck the floating lights easily from mid-air. My brother and Billy are medium-good, though my brother once almost swallows one as he’s running. Robert squashes the bugs dead, but still glowing, between his grimy fingers.

Richard is best. He stands still and holds out his skinny arms, and one by one, the fireflies land on him. His hands and shoulders, even his head. They blink like Christmas lights.

“Richard!” a voice shouts across the lawn. Their back door opens, an adult shadow in a square of light. “Robert! Come home now!”

Richard shakes himself and the fireflies drift away. “Bye,” he says.

“Bye, bye, bye!” chugs Robert, running in circles before he follows his brother home.

“We should go inside too,” Noah says. We start up the grass, Billy close behind us. Noah stops.

“Go home, Billy,” Noah says.

Billy hesitates.

“Go home, Billy!” Noah says again. We rush inside and close the door behind us.

The bright lights and noise are a shock. I rub my eyes as Noah and my brother sit at the kitchen table and start eating potato chips. Cupping my face to the window, I see that Billy is still there. Lightning bugs twinkle around him, but none of them land.



Noah never gets to see the turtle. He’s forgotten he has soccer practice on Sundays, and by Monday, all that’s left is a greasy spot. Cars drive over it as though nothing happened, but we kids avoid it for a long time. For a long time, we remember.



I used to be friends with the girls at the bus stop.  Barbara, Michelle, and April.  They’re a year younger than I am, but I liked to play with them.  We rode our bikes or explored the wood.  Once Michelle and I found an old chicken coop.  Another time Barbara and I found a pumpkin field and, not knowing the field actually belonged to someone, helped ourselves.  We told other kids about it, who also helped themselves and would eventually get chased away by the farmer.

“He had a rifle,” said a boy on the bus.  He looked right at me as he said it, as though it were my fault, and for a moment I felt a thrill, as though I were famous.

Last year, Barbara and the others suddenly decided they didn’t like me anymore. They call me and my brother chink and ching-chong. Barbara especially, whose blond hair is always greasy and who has several dirty-faced little brothers who run wild through the neighborhood.

One day at school my brother tells Barbara to fuck off.  He’s going to the bathroom when he sees her.  As they pass, he looks right at her and says, “Fuck you fuck you fuck you.”  She stiffens and says nothing.

But nothing changes after this.  At the bus stop, Barbara and the others are the same.



Weeks pass. The days are the same, but not.

Noah tries to teach me chess. Each piece moves differently, and I can’t remember which does what, only that the pawn moves one space. Noah gets frustrated with me and gives up.

In the wood behind our house, we find a huge cocoon of gypsy moth caterpillars. We poke at it with a stick till it breaks open and caterpillar after caterpillar tumble out on long silk strings.

Noah gets cable TV. I see my first music video (“Freeze Frame” by The J. Geils Band) and my first movie with nudity (Looker, with Susan Dey). We watch Clash of the Titans again and again.

At our house, we discover our swing set is full of wasps. Somehow they have burrowed into the hollow metal tubes and laid their eggs. While we’re playing, they come buzzing out.

At our house, Noah falls. We’re walking on top of the edge of the couch, pretending we’re in the circus. Noah slips, tumbles, and cracks his head on the coffee table. He screams and all the adults come running. His parents hover over him while my mother yells at me.

“How could you let that happen?” she screams. “Why were you doing that? What were you thinking?”

It wasn’t my idea, climbing on the couch like that.  In fact it was Noah’s, but this is my mother’s house, and so somehow it’s her fault, which means it’s my fault too.

At Noah’s house, Robert gets hit by a car. He and Billy are playing together when their ball rolls into the highway. None of us are there. We’re still in school, or doing homework, or with friends. None of us are there to look out for Robert, the youngest. To yell, “Robert, stop!” and grab him by the scruff of the neck. Perhaps Billy said, weakly, “We’re not supposed to cross the street,” but no one listens to Billy and so he’s not surprised when Robert doesn’t either.

My mother tells me this one Saturday morning. We’re both in our pajamas. She has a mug of coffee near her face.

“Robert’s dead,” she says.

“Oh,” I say.

I think of the turtle, but I can’t imagine Robert like that. I can’t imagine Robert being dead. My father’s mother died the year before. Lauren Marcus’ father died that winter. She’s the only kid in class, that I know of, with a dead parent. She was gone for a long time. When she came back, she didn’t talk to anyone, just sat at her desk with her face against her palm, making doodles. Lauren’s father will never come back, and neither will my grandmother, and neither will Robert.

This is all it means to me, being dead. You don’t come back.



The news of Robert’s death is so big, it travels outside our world, beyond the ears of Chinese people.

“Did you hear about that kid who got killed on the highway?” someone on the bus says.

I’m surprised to hear this, the way I was surprised when the boy looked at me when he talked about the pumpkins and the farmer with the rifle. I’m always surprised when I discover I and my world are not invisible.



We still play with Noah. Billy still comes over. He doesn’t seem any different. No one says it was his fault. How can it be? Everyone knows how he is.

We don’t see Richard. He must be busy, we think. Soon he’ll be in junior high, and he won’t have time to play at all.

We see his parents once. We’re pulling into Noah’s driveway when they emerge from their own car. It’s a gray day, and the wind blows as they hurry into the house.

“There they are,” my father murmurs.

They look right at us: Please don’t see us seeing you. They shut the door behind them. We never see them again.



One night at mah-jongg, Noah’s mother and my mother have a fight.  My mother has won yet again.  She wins easily but never brags.  Noah’s mother, fed up with losing, throws her chips at my mother from across the table.

“Take your damned chips,” she says.

The silence is palpable.  Someone attempts a joke.  “You’ll put someone’s eye out with those!”  My mother and Noah’s mother don’t speak for the rest of the game, and for many years afterward. We don’t see Noah again for a long time.



I wish I could say Barbara and I had a confrontation. But we never do. The most that happens is that one day, she comes to our door. When I answer it, she looks nervous.

“I’m selling magazine subscriptions,” she explains.

My eyes narrow. I’m in high school now. I have a large circle of beautiful friends. We walk down the hall, side by side, an impassable wall of hair spray and Jovan musk. Barbara’s still in junior high. She’s gotten fat.

“But you don’t have to buy one,” she says quickly. “I’ll just put down that I talked to you.”  She scribbles on her clipboard, then runs off.

It’s in high school that I see Richard again, in the hallways, between classes. He’s an only slightly bigger version of his same skinny, bespectacled self. I should see Noah too, but now he goes to private school. The next time we see him will be many years later, after we’ve grown up.

I see Richard once face-to-face. My friends and I go to see the school play, Grease, and Richard is collecting tickets. I’m surprised to see him wearing a drama club T-shirt.

“Tickets please!” he says busily.

Will he recognize me? I wonder as we approach him. People don’t usually, even with my being one of only half a dozen Asian kids in the whole school.

“Tickets please!” Richard says again. Barely looking at me, he takes mine and rips it smartly in half.  Handing the stub back to me, he moves onto the next person.  “Tickets please!”

Without another word, my friends and I leave him.  We disappear into the darkness of the theater.  Over my shoulder I see Richard framed in the doorway, his T-shirt bright with light.


We left home for Bald Head Island under an invasion of gnats.  They started turning up in the master bathroom, and it got to the point where I was killing a dozen or more a day.  The slaughter was not traumatic for me in any way.  The gnats were slow, unthreatening.  You could close your hand around them or — my preferred method — wait for one to land and crush it neatly under a fingertip.  If one alit in the sink, you might end its existence with a splash.

I didn’t think of the gnats again until we were well ensconced on Bald Head, until we saw the baby sea turtles.

Like many of North Carolina’s barrier islands, Bald Head’s beaches are significant nesting ground for sea turtles.  They come ashore in the spring and dig an eighteen-inch-deep hole with their hind legs, then cover it, leaving one or two hundred eggs to fate.  When they hatch two months later, the baby turtles make a manic dash for the water, presuming predators haven’t dug up the eggs first.  And that the hatchlings didn’t follow houselights to distraction.  And that the birds didn’t get them.

This is where humans enter the equation.  During nesting season, volunteers managed by the Bald Head Conservancy patrol the beaches to monitor egg laying.  When they locate a nest, they put a wire cage around it with a do-not-disturb sign.

For the five years we’ve been going to Bald Head — always during the summer hatching season — we’ve seen many marked nests.  This year we noted two right by the beach path nearest our rental house.  As we always do, we paused to examine them the first day.  The sign, the broad-spaced wire, the sand — all were as nondescript and inauspicious as they always appeared.

Then, one early evening, I was drinking a cocktail and gazing past the rushes toward the ocean when some kind of fuss arose on the beach.  I stared dumbly, trying to make sense of it.  Was this a party — a wedding?  A few people had on the same color green.  What were they wearing?  What was that about?

The sliding door opened behind me and my wife stepped out.  “What’s going on?”

“I’m trying to figure it out myself.  Beach party?”

Someone pulled up in a golf cart — the main mode of island transportation — and rushed down the path without pause.  Another person arrived.  Then another.

“Oh,” my wife declared.  “The turtles!”

We notified our group and hit the beach with drinks in hand.

Sure enough, a crowd had formed by one of the nests.  The green T-shirts were the volunteers.  They had dug a trench from nest to water, to facilitate things.  A hundred people or more lined the trench, some sitting, others standing.  There was an air of celebration: kids performing cartwheels in the sand, playing frisbee.  Still, a cartful of teenage girls road right by, oblivious.

I sidled up to the group of people beside the nest.  A volunteer explained that they knew the eggs had hatched because the sand had collapsed, forming a crater about six inches deep.  But the only sign of life was a single lump of uneven sand in the crater.  It may have moved while I was looking.  Then again, maybe not.

A volunteer told everyone to keep the noise down.  Amazingly, people complied, though there were whispered conversations.

My nephew, with all the ingenuousness of a five year old, got into a chat with an older boy about camp.  The boy asked what camp.  In Georgia, my nephew reported, a Jewish camp.

“I know a Jewish boy at school,” the boy said without irony.  “He’s not bad when you get to know him.”

When we laughed, the boy became a tad belligerent.  With night falling, it felt a little spooky.

The volunteer said no one should touch the turtles when they start moving.  If one goes off track, tell a volunteer, who will guide it back into the trench.  A few of the volunteers had pulled latex gloves on, as if the hatch were imminent.  I asked how many babies there would be.  She said there were 161 eggs in the nest.

“How can you be so specific?”

She explained that the nest had been placed too close to the water by the mother turtle.  Volunteers dug it up within hours and moved the eggs to higher ground.  Being conscientious, they counted them.

We all peered into the hole.  Did the lump move?  Maybe.

It was getting dark.  Volunteers were shining lights into the hole — red lights, which they believed the turtles couldn’t see.

My wife overheard a man say: “Why aren’t people more interested in the sky.  The sky is beautiful tonight.”  It was true.  The stars were emerging.  Then again, there were miles of beach, yet this man was here with the rest of us, awaiting the turtles.

The scientist in charge arrived, Brett DeGregorio.  He seemed young and vigorous, on top of things.  I asked if he was a marine biologist and he shook his head.

“I’m a reptile guy.”

That made sense.  He told me he held an undergraduate degree from U. Mass.  For his Masters, he’d studied rattlesnakes at Purdue.  He seemed a little startled by the turnout.  I don’t suppose one gets a crowd for rattlesnake hatches.

Despite the excitement, I had the presence of mind to ask Brett how long this would take.  Our kids are young and the mosquitos were coming out.  I’ll take gnats over mosquitos any day.

Brett said most of the hatchlings would emerge all at once in what observers call a boil.  Once that begins it would all be over in a few minutes, he said.

But how long after the roof of the nest has fallen in does it begin?

“Anywhere from eight to thirty-six hours.”

Thirty-six hours!  It was after nine o’clock and the kids were already exhausted.  I passed the word and we made a group decision to leave.  Each of us gave a parting glance to the hole.  Status quo.  We trudged away disappointed.

Back at the house, my seven-year-old daughter said of the turtles: “They’ll probably come out at one in the morning when no one’s around except the super nature explorers and people who are really really desperate.”

But the super nature explorers and the casual observers, the desperate and the not so desperate were all equally disappointed that night.

In the morning, a lone volunteer stood monitoring the nest.  My wife made inquiries.  The volunteer explained that the boil hadn’t happened and, notwithstanding its name, was unlikely to occur in the heat of day.  Maybe tonight, she said.  She further explained that the one lone turtle that appeared as no more than a lump of sand had been removed by the scientist for safe keeping, carried away in a cooler.

Poor little guy!

An hour later that volunteer had gone and my wife, ever curious, picked the brains of another.  This one said the first volunteer was misinformed.  No turtle had been removed, just covered again with sand for protection from the sun.

Who to believe?  It was like a very earnest game of telephone.

Yet something was happening in that hole, something not contrived by man, something both ancient and in a sense eternal.

So of course we were back that evening with the crowd, staring into the sand crater.  The volunteers were ready and eager again, too.  The crowd was more insistently hushed, as if through reverence they could make nature happen.  Brett, the scientist, was there, too.

I asked some more questions and learned some more facts.  Several species of sea turtle lay their eggs on Bald Head, but this was the most common, a loggerhead nest.  And if it hatched — when it hatched — it would be the first of a light season.  Last year there were more than seventy nests laid.  This year, fewer than thirty.  Also, on the subject of numbers, Brett said there were 154 eggs in the nest, not 161, as the volunteer had insisted.  I wasn’t about to count the hatch, but if someone decided to do so, I’d put my money on Brett.

The evening progressed as before, though a discerning look into the hole revealed more lumps than the previous night.  And did one of those lumps just move?  Maybe.

Darkness fell and my entire party drifted away.  I decided to hang out for a few more minutes.

Then a minor commotion arose as one of the volunteers showed up with a small red cooler.  Brett opened the lid and I peered inside.  A sand-colored turtle the size of two quarters rested there on what looked like a bed of damp cotton.  Rescued.  So the first volunteer had reported correctly.

“Maybe this guy can inspire the others,” Brett said.  Gently, he dropped the baby turtle into the hole.  It stretched its neck and one of the lumps looked up.  Then a couple of other lumps moved.

This was more action than we’d seen in that crater in two days.  I took out my cell phone and whispered urgently when my sister answered: “It’s happening.  Get out here!”

My party — kids and all — arrived just in time to see the hole come to life.  A boil.  One moment we were looking mostly at sand.  Then, with the suddenness of a Star Trek transporter beam, it was mostly turtles.  Baby turtles, two or three inches long and straining against one another with the determination of toddlers on their first trundle.  They crested the lip of the hole, scampered straight through the wire mesh, and sprinted down the trench toward the ocean as fast as their flippers would carry them.

My nephew, never at a loss for words, said, “It’s like a race!”

If so, it was an endurance race.  They say that only one of ten thousand sea turtles survives the twenty-five years required for sexual maturity.  A lucky few may live eighty years.

Nature, if it has consciousness, must think us mad.

As is the case for so many species, man is the sea turtles’ No. 1 predator.  Though they’re protected in many places, they are also hunted for their meat, their shells and their skin.  We destroy their habitat with beachside development.  We snag them in long-line fishing rigs and shrimp nets, where they often drown.

And yet, others among us usher these creatures into the world with more attention than most newborns get.  (When was the last time you saw a hundred people at a human birth?)  If they could remember volunteers with latex gloves, guiding them toward the ocean, the turtles must later look up at industrial trawlers with incredulousness, wondering:  And these people are all one species?

In this admittedly roundabout way I thought, the next day, of the gnats in my bathroom and how casually I terminated their existence and would continue to do so.

A gnat, of course, is not a sea turtle.  And one can’t fret every death, right?  All life, as the poet Frank Bidart wrote, “exists at the expense of other life.”

The next morning, fire ants by the front door stung my sister’s leg.  My brother-in-law, always eager to act, sprayed poison on them, defending his family.  We’ve all done it.  And, as they always do, the ants curled into little twitching balls and expired.

And I thought: perhaps I should ask my daughter what she meant the other night, when she spoke of really desperate people.

Part One: The archipelago.

I’ve decided I wanna come back as a Galapagos sea lion. Seriously. They’re livin’ the dream. Bountiful food, no predators, plenty of companionship. They loll around in the sand most of the day lounging all over each other, waddle around looking for shade, or a good meaty ass to rest their head on, do a little fishing now and again, take an occasional dip just for the hell of it—seriously, they’ve got it dialed in. They are truly joyful creatures to watch. The bulls are a little surly at times, and downright scary when you get too close to them in the water,  but the mothers and the babies are nothing less than playful when you swim with them—and they’re amazing swimmers, too, totally graceful and athletic. The penguins are amazing swimmers, too,  kinda sprite-like in their quickness, now-you-see-them-now-you don’t. Manta Rays freak my ass out. It’s like somebody ran over a shark with a steamroller then mated it with a flying saucer.

Talk about stealthy. Tiger sharks are lazy fuckers from what I observed. They just kinda hang out under rocks floating there in the shadows like turds. Not exactly man-eaters —though, to be sure, you won’t find me swimming around down there in the shadows. I’m no fishologist, but damn there’s some garish colored fish down there. Bright orange and hot purple and bright blue. Some skinny fuckers, too. They’ll be swimming right at you like a sheet of paper, then bingo-bango , they turn a corner and your looking at an Italian flag with lips. There were these other schools of fish I’d swim through that were almost transparent. You could swim right through the middle of them and they’d swish aside like silk curtains. Fuck if I know what they were called. You’ll just have to believe me. I thought I saw Nessie, too. But it was just a penguin head.

It was pretty cool to see a pink flamingo without a mobile home behind it.

I saw A LOT of giant sea-turtles humping. A LOT. Not all that sexy, really. The dude just sort of hitches a ride on the female as far as I can tell. And they hump for a long time. Longer than I’ve ever humped. Which isn’t saying much. Saw giant land tortoises humping, too. What can I say, there was romance in the air. Not that I got humped. Okay, maybe once. The cabins on our boat weren’t exactly conducive to humping. Or sleeping, for that matter. The food wasn’t exactly conducive to shitting, either. But I loved the cook, Victor, anyway. He was a sweetheart. He had a genius for dry meat. He cooked me a t-bone that would have made a pretty decent catchers mitt. And for the record, hot dogs are the breakfast sausage of choice on the equator. Victor slathered them in an orange sauce reminiscent of Spaghettios. Nobody ate them. But old Victor never got the hint. Can’t fault him for that.



Yadida the bartender was my buddy. Go figure. She had a way of tying a napkin around a beer that was inspiring. By the way, if you’re a beer aficionado, go ahead and skip Ecuador on your brew tour. The local swills are nothing to write home about, but they’re pretty tasty on the deck of a boat after you’ve been snorkeling and hiking all day. And did I mention Yadida’s superlative napkin work? Every beer looked like it was wearing a prom dress. The second mate Pedro was in love with my wife. Poor guy. Speaking of my wife, she was a pleasure the whole trip. Even if she didn’t hump me all the time. I’ll bet you old Pedro got something for the spank bank. Don’t worry, my wife never reads my blogs.

I love my in-laws to death. We spent eighteen inseparable days with Lauren’s folks and it was a joy every minute of the way, seriously. They’re the best. Not too many people I could get along with for that length of time under those conditions.

Other cool animals I saw in the wild: frigate birds, pelicans, albatross, blue-footed boobies, masked boobies, marine iguanas by the hundreds, lava lizards, fur seals, sting rays, eagle rays, and my favorite animal of all, fat ladies from Texas. Can you believe they have fat ladies from Texas with hair like Bill Parcels in the Galapagos? When you think about it, that’s way weirder than lava lizards.

 


One of my favorite moments in the Galapagos involved a fat lady from Texas. She had hair like Bill Parcels. Positioning herself behind a baby sea lion for a photo op on Isla Santa Fe (okay, I admit it, I don’t remember which damn island it was—its all a blur of colorful fish and napkined beers), this fat lady from Texas was standing on the beach with a big shit-eating grin, looking like Bill Parcels after a third down conversion, totally unaware that the mother had waddled up behind her. She took a step backward and tripped over the mother sea lion and fell flat on her big Texas ass. I know it’s wrong, but I almost pissed myself. You should have seen it! The sea lions were laughing.



My own crowning moment as a gringo involved six margaritas and a hollowed out tortoise shell in a bar on Isla Santa Cruz (and I know what island it was, cause it was the first night). This particular scenario pretty much sums up all of my ambivalence about human impact on the Galapagos. Let’s face it, that’s fucked up. But wouldn’t you wanna get inside a hollowed out giant tortoise shell after six two-dollar margaritas and walk around a bar like that if you had the chance?