Reading time: ~8 minutes
A note from the editor: Perhaps there's an element of nostalgia to this piece, but the narrative quickly transcends any device to dig deep at themes of loss and empathy. I think of this one again and again, each time I pass a storefront now. In this era of shopping without ever leaving your home, it made me want to act on the urge to connect with people on the street, with my bank teller, with the guy at the video store. In the words of one of our associate fiction editors, "Endings should draw you in." This one definitely does its job.
Yi Shun Lai
P.S. Michelangelo forever.
You don’t work in the toy business for forty-some-odd years without meeting a few colorful people. The mid–panic attack parents pounding on the door after you close on Christmas Eve; the heartbreaking kids wheeled in, frail and hairless from chemo, their eyes real glassy and deep in their skull. Once I was even held-up at knife point. There wasn’t much money in the register and they caught the guy a week later robbing a convenience store, so maybe there’s not much of a story there. But for a while after that I couldn’t stock the rubber swords and plastic Rambo knives without sweating through my shirt.
Then there was the Turtle Lady. She had been a customer for a year before I started calling her that. A Top Toys regular with no time for small talk. One of those mothers on a mission making a beeline for the newest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle like it was the last case of water in a nation-wide drought. Sometimes she’d have the figure in her clutches before the string of bells on the front door stopped jingling.
She never bought other toys. Never even looked at any. Some mornings, when she was the first customer of the day, I swear she was a bird of prey, swooping through the store, passing the small-fry Teddy Ruxpins, the neon-bright Super Soakers, the stacks of yellow Play-Doh jars, the confounding Rubik’s Cubes, aisle after aisle of flashy toys—she’d skip it all, flying straight to the Turtle corner and alighting on the newest Ninja Turtle without fail. She always seemed to know which iteration was most in demand. I figured either she did her research or her kid gave great instructions. Like, “This week, Mom, there’s a version of Michelangelo as a football player. With shoulder pads and knee pads and a removable football that clicks into his hand. His arm actually throws. Like a real arm. A real arm!” My own kids used to sound like that. Back when they were kids and we used to talk. When they begged me to tell them stories and they listened, snug in their beds, their faces rapt-seeming even in sleep.
The hullabaloos around new toys are a boon for business. And on those busy, debut days, when parents were lined up outside before I opened, regardless of the weather, humming with anxiety, the dread of their child’s disappointment looming behind them—on these days I’d keep one eye on the inventory and one looking out for our Turtle Lady. One such day I spied her in the crowd. She was easy to spot. Unlike the eager, indulgent look of the rest of the parents, her face was determined. Determined and miserable. I guessed because she was so torn up with worry that her kid wouldn’t have the newest, coolest, most ingenious Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle the day it was released. I thought she might have a stroke. I could imagine it. “Ma’am, we’re sold out,” I’d say, and she’d just look at me. Silent. Uncomprehending. I’d repeat myself two or three times to let it sink in and then all that maternal rage would float up into her brain like a blood clot and she’d keel over. No more foot soldiers to worry about. No more pizza to gorge on. No more sewers to patrol. The demise of the Turtle Lady.
Not that her obsession was so unique. A lot of parents came through like that, trapped with tunnel-vision for a certain toy. But the Turtle Lady seemed to operate at her own special frequency. Though I admired her doggedness, and appreciated the business, I secretly hoped she’d pick out another toy. Just once. Even if only to look at it. She never did. Never deviated from her schedule.
But back in 1990 I think, or maybe the end of ’89, she stopped coming in. I didn’t notice right away. Between the videogame store opening up at the mall and the release of the Gameboy, we were struggling to keep the store in the black. I lost a lot of sleep over how many units of Furbies to order and whether dollhouses could ever compete with Tetris. Days of soul-searching in the toy business. Confronting a lot of hard questions. But eventually I noticed her absence. Or one of my stock boys said something. And I guess I got curious. It felt like a bad omen for the store, losing such a steady and devoted customer, so I looked her up in our customer list.
Her name was Maria Bruno. She lived one town over in Midland Park. Which was weird, because they have their own toy store. A good one too. One of those family-run neighborhood establishments that feel permanent, a hearty part of the landscape like a big old oak. Popular enough that they often ran out of hot-selling toys, and sent customers over here, where toys took longer to sell out. Honestly, too long sometimes. But during a slow mid-week morning at the store, I got the idea to send her a card. I did this now and then, mostly to let loyal customers know when an exciting new toy was coming in and, yes, to remind them to come spend some of their money in my store. People liked it. And I liked sending them. The point was to be light, not nagging so much as thoughtful, funny even. Not another advertisement so much as your loyal and concerned toy seller checking in.
I wrote her full name and address on the postcard. The front had a nice glossy photo of the store all decked-out and lit-up for Christmas. On the back, I wrote:
Dear Mrs. Bruno (our Turtle Lady!),
Your friends at Top Toys want to wish you well and let you know that the latest versions of your favorite mutated crime-fighting turtles have hit the shelves. Hope to see you soon. Cowabunga!
—the Top Toys team
Outside of the toy business, a grown man writing to a stranger about toys is weird. But I know my trade and people love that stuff. Or they used to anyway. I dropped it in a mailbox on my way home, confident that she’d appreciate the letter and the nickname. The kind of service you only get from a local store.
Nothing came of it for a month or so. The Turtle Lady remained in her shell. Until, on a bleak mid-March morning, she appeared, ready for her Turtle as if there’d never been a break in her routine. I remember she wasn’t wearing a coat and her sweater had little beads of ice clinging to it, melting as I rang her up. I was proud of my postcard and couldn’t resist breaching protocol and attempting some small talk with her.
“So, you’re back. And with Mutagen Man. Good choice. He’s a hit. For your son?” She looked at me and her mouth smiled but her eyes looked tired. “He’s kind of a tragic character. Mutagen Man,” I said.
I got no response other than the stiff smile so I plowed on, too quickly reading the back of the box as I waited for her receipt to print. The machine was on the fritz again, spitting out blank paper.
“He’s five hundred pounds.” I started to elaborate on the facts, looking at his guts through his clear plastic stomach. They were just floating there. All of his organs. Like things to be studied, soaked in formaldehyde. Some of these toys were on the morbid side. “He’s a conflicted character. A villain, yes, but not your run-of-mill bad guy. No Bebop or Rocksteady. His body is breaking down. Look at his scaly skin. You can see the muscle poking through. And the eyes just suspended in the plastic blob of a body.” I was getting carried away. It was a disturbing toy. “And he needs ooze to survive. He runs on the toxic stuff. That’s why he helps Shredder. Only for the ooze.” I looked up from futzing with the receipt printer and saw that the Turtle Lady was crying. Still wearing that weird half-smile, but bawling too. I didn’t know what to do.
“Ma’am. I’m sorry. Would you like a tissue?” I thought about taking ten percent off but understood that it wouldn’t help any.
She shook her head. I handed her the receipt. She took it, and Mutagen Man, and walked back into the sleet-coated world outside. The episode unnerved me. I couldn’t read her and I pride myself on being able to read my customers. I went to the Turtle section and, to be doing something, reorganized the toys. I put the Turtles on the top along with the other good guys, their friends and sidekicks, mutant ducks and rats and rabbits. A reporter. An oddball in a hockey mask. Usually, I spread them out, intermixing allies and enemies. But I remember that day I banished the bad guys to the bottom row.
The Turtle Lady disappeared again. This time, I couldn’t blame her. She came in to buy a toy for her kid and left in tears. Not exactly your typical toy-store experience. I felt terrible about it. I waited a month and decided to pay her a visit. I thought about sending another postcard or mailing her a special coupon but ended up thinking a face-to-face apology was the right thing to do. Sometimes all you can do is say you’re sorry.
I drove over to Midland Park on a Monday. Our towns are so similar that if it weren’t for a little blue sign welcoming you to Midland Park, you wouldn’t know you ever left one place or were entering another. Her house was on the south end of town. A niceish neighborhood of two and three-bedroom Cape Cods and ranches, a mix of brick and vinyl-siding. Well-kept lawns but no lavish landscaping. Her house in the middle of the block was smaller and shabbier than I expected. Based on the number of Turtles she bought, I figured she had a decent amount of money. The house was a little dumpy and the yard too. It felt abandoned. The gloominess of the place made me reconsider my postcard plan. But I got out of the car after all and rang the doorbell—you have to have a certain amount of courage to make it in the toy business. It sounded a bit like a sleigh bell, only more muffled and flat. I had a new toy with me. A samurai panda. One of the Turtles’ allies. I thought a cuter figure might cheer her up and help move the apology along. I’d used the same trick with my daughters, raiding the store for something to win them back after I’d disappointed them. A new doll, a skateboard. It worked, for a time. Worked until it didn’t.
I rang the bell once more and the button got stuck. The bell kept ringing. In succession, it sounded like the sleigh had begun to move.
She came to the door with that same fixed smile. I said, “Hi. Hello. I’m the owner of Top Toys. We spoke about a month ago.”
“I remember. Hello.” She spoke softly but wasn’t crying so I thought it was going well enough. Time to turn on the old toy salesman charm, I thought.
“Yes. Well, I didn’t get a chance to apologize before you left. You’ve been a loyal customer and of course I’m very sorry if I said anything that offended you. Very sorry.” She didn’t respond and I started to sweat. I could feel the dampness of my shirt matching the dampness of the green April day blooming behind me.
“And I brought Panda Khan here as part of my apology. He’s a time-traveling, mutant, samurai bear.” I held the figure out in front me, peace offering and shield. “Your son will love him.”
She opened the door a bit wider and I saw what I should have guessed at much earlier—an armband wrapped around her upper-arm, a black mourning band thick enough almost to cover her arm from shoulder to elbow. I didn’t notice in the store because she must have been wearing a dark sweater. Or I was too focused on the toy or the sleet melting in her hair or on feeding the cash register.
I went in and held the figure in its plastic box with both hands. I needed to hold onto something.
“Thank you for coming. It’s kind.”
The living room was full of drying flowers hanging upside down from a clothesline. I ducked under a bunch of inverted carnations and followed her down a carpeted hallway, not really sure of where we were heading until we came to a door with a large sticker on it the shape of a turtle shell.
“This is my son’s room. You can leave it with the others in the corner if you’d like.”
The room was small, shrunken. A big hospital bed stuck in the upright position blocked half of the only window in the room. The curtains were drawn. Along the opposite wall, a child’s desk and chair. A lamp with what looked like crayon wax melted along the bottom. A narrow closet. Very little else other than, in one corner, the son’s collection, all the Turtles she’d ever bought, piled high like a plastic pyre. I put the panda on top. The toys seemed, suddenly, like what they were: cheap, mass-produced plastic figurines. And I? The lonely man peddling them.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” I said.
“He always wanted to come to your store, you know. But I never let him. I liked the surprise on his face when he saw the new Turtle on our front steps. I’d set them outside just before his bus dropped him off.” She nodded towards the mound of plastic figures. “It didn’t matter which. I’d go out front and watch him through the window. He’d play with them but they’d never fight. He’d just have them tell each other stories. Make introductions. He would memorize the blurbs on the boxes and then add to them. Long stories about their homeland, their families, their hopes for the future.” She smiled then, and her eyes smiled too. “Like a tea party, I guess.”
“I’m very sorry. I didn’t know,” I said, thinking of my daughters at that age. Their miniature furniture and tea sets. The stories we’d create together. As kids they could imagine anything, whole worlds, alternate realities.
“When he got too sick to go to school, I lined them up on the end of his bed. Like they just arrived to visit him.” Her smile tightened. “I don’t need them now. I bought the last one out of habit. I missed the feeling of coming home with something for him. Of coming home to him.”
There they were, all of them. The core group. The original toys. Then, the larger family of accomplices and allies, of rivals and villains. The multiple versions of each Turtle: The detective Turtle in a trench coat. The slice-and-dice Turtle with the moving arms. A lumpish villain that was a disembodied and tentacled brain. I thought of all those hours in the toy store, hours I spent reading the stories on their boxes. The figures were dead and dull in their packaging, despite the articulated joints and bright costumes and elaborate backstories, without a child’s imagination to animate them.
“They are amazing, aren’t they?”
I said they were.
“Do you want them? I was thinking of donating them. Or maybe keeping a few.” She bent down and picked up one. “He liked this gold robot, I think.”
“That’s the Fugitoid,” I said, the names ingrained from hours of stocking shelves.
“The Fugitoid,” she said, moving the odd word around her mouth as she moved the robot’s arms and legs.
“He helps the Turtles. He was a doctor originally.” I picked up another. “And of course, you know Splinter?”
She shook her head. Her eyes were focused on Splinter. Really focused. I don’t think she saw me at all. I sat down next to the pile, cross-legged like a little kid. From the floor, the room didn’t seem so small. I thought of all those parents lining up in front of my store and I felt sorry that neither I nor Maria Bruno would ever again be among them.
“Well, let me give you some background on him. There’s so much to tell,” I said, digging into the pile. I heard her sob. Loud, like some sort of congestion in her chest breaking up and apart. But she kept listening. I kept talking. Neither of us could stop.
Kent Kosack had this to say about "Origin Stories for the Turtle Lady":
My mother was the Turtle Lady, lining up toys on our stoop for me to see when I got home. That nickname is the origin of this story, a story about storytelling, the way we need stories to keep going, to grieve, to connect. The same needs driving the narrator and the Turtle Lady together are what motivate me to read and write.
Kent Kosack is a writer and MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh where he teaches composition and creative writing. kentkosack.com