Justin Nicholes: “Prologue: The Writer” from a Story Collection in Progress

The man was large and startling. Not old, maybe thirty-five. He carried four hundred pounds, mostly around his stomach and hips, and wore oversized t-shirts and sweats that must’ve been tailored or imported from the West. His neck jutted from the doughy lump of his shoulders, nearly straight out. It made it seem he was always peeking around corners.

His head, the shape of it, reminded you of a boxer’s. He’d lived through some kind of damage. If you asked his mother or anybody around town, or if you knew the story from the driver himself, you’d know that pearly scar wormed around the place where surgeons had inserted a wedge of titanium. People knew he couldn’t think the way they did. Whereas everyone was aware of everyday commonplaces, one hand firmly reading vibrations on the social train tracks, he walked along a precise, prescribed route, seeming to have no thoughts to spare on anything except the turns he needed to take, the paths he needed to follow.

He couldn’t say himself what happened to make him this way. He didn’t know a snowstorm had distracted a driver last year on the highway. Zero visibility, the police had said, and the driver had pled guilty to a minor charge, paid the right people, and since laws barred walkers on the highway to begin with, the case closed.

Still, he did remember some of what followed the accident. When he had come home, the house had chilled him. His mother stacked blankets so that just his face showed around the pillows, and it must have been a good day when she set a bowl of noodles on the nightstand and cocked her head, looking as if she’d never noticed him before, and then (as timely as a miracle) started to laugh. Afraid something had happened, he’d jiggled his face around the room looking for the disaster. “You look like a turtle on its back,” she finally managed. The name stuck in their house and spread. Just call me Turtle, he told people who asked, though the people who asked were few.


All this, anyway, was what the writer had come up with. She ran at the problem of Turtle, a man she’d never met but only seen, earnestly but hastily, and even she would tell you to consider the source.

She was young, she would say, plus out of shape and out of a clue—an expat writer by accident living in a foreign-teacher dorm on the campus of a Chinese school in Anyang City. She made five hundred dollars’ worth of Chinese yuan a month and told her parents she made twice that amount (plus room and board, so go ahead and add ten grand a year in imaginary salary, she sometimes added as a side note). This was roughly the third-person bio she sent to editors when submitting her short stories to magazines.

She was American. She’d grown up in Winesfield, Ohio. A real burg. She’d lived there most of her life and had gone to Anyang after studies at Purdue because failing abroad seemed a lot easier than failing at home. She was twenty-five and in love with Chinese girls.

The writer’s first sexual experience had happened one summer while sharing a sleeping bag with an older cousin. In China, she sated urges while watching herself in mirrors, another kind of enclosure—and a parallel that wasn’t lost on this writer. Chinese girls reminded her of the things she loved about her own body. She combed her fingers through straight black hair, watching earlobes redden and faces tilt from learned shame, knowing the body’s argument usually won out in the end. These girls fit a type, the writer might say, and desire made her shiver. Just thinking of it made it difficult to write: They represented, she guessed, her own special blend of writer’s block. Still, didn’t they make their own kinds of stories, stories that felt the way stories were supposed to feel, with beginnings, middles, and endings? Endings that made it a little easier to live where she lived (after all, the Internet sucked), and do what she did? Chinese girls were tight bellies, almond thighs, and wispy pubic patches. And everybody around her, the American men anyway, seemed to be marrying the hell out of them.


The first time the writer spotted Turtle from her foreign-teacher dormitory window, she’d said, “God.” She’d snatched a dollar-store telescope out of a drawer and focused in. Spilling into space, into the element of air, this guy made something to behold.

A line bloomed in her head, maybe the first line of a story: The element of air seeks reconciliation. She imagined it slitting open around his passage, or maybe following him in a womb-like bubble. She imagined it rippling out and affecting everyone in sight.

Turtle climbed the winding stairs of a walkway overpass. A sweet-potato vendor aimed his cries toward Turtle as if scolding him. The white t-shirt Turtle wore looked like a blanket with armholes. Some words flaked off the chest, words the writer’s telescope blurred out of readable focus. Turtle gripped the rail along the pedestrian bridge while morning traffic swished below him past the university main gate. Bus horns pealed. Cars honked warnings. Turtle crossed the street, veered off his path just long enough to pat the neck of a donkey strapped to a non-hooded locust-wood rickshaw, and tottered on.


The writer slacked off on the Turtle story. It was just way too fucking depressing. She’d learned during her MFA days that editors loved writing that was dreamlike, vivid images told with quirky and borderline cute prose. The topic of Turtle just didn’t seem to lend itself to that kind of writing. She wrote fast and hysterically (though she hated the sexist root of that word, hysterical). Her syntax inductively slalomed toward discovery, toward whatever it was the story’s details were trying to murmur.

Still, she felt writing about this man might revive her, and she promised never to tell any of her colleagues about him. She thought of herself as unaccomplished, and was definitely unsure of herself—and she knew she was also jealous. She had gotten one story published in her life. A national journal had accepted it while she was an undergraduate and even nominated it for a Pushcart. Instead of making it easier to write, that story’s accidental success and the following string of rejections baffled her. She began to worry that editors and publishers would shake their heads at this résumé gap.

She already had enough doubt to contend with, she often thought. She came from northern Ohio, and a little bit of herself hated that Sherwood Anderson had written that book, also that the fictitious Ohio town’s name sounded like the one she’d really grown up in. She felt cheated. She’d once believed people cared about what a person wrote, but most people seemed not to care. She kept Turtle a secret and made plans.

She would place Turtle in a story and portray him as a man who walked through life post-traumatic injury, fondling things as he went, like a piano tuner trying to crank the chords true. Turtle would pass through the same streets, at the same time every day, because he too sought reconciliation. Turtle, then, would represent Art though not on purpose. It would become that way. The key was that the story should grow organically. Life as Art, and art as the air element brushing against things, slowing them with drag or making them float. Turtle would right people’s minds, remind them of some impulse they shared with the Afflicted. The writer sat down at her notebook to draft the story.

Stopping to get more coffee, eat, use the bathroom, and teach, she finished in two weeks.


The writer got up early Monday morning. The story lacked details. “Voices in a room,” an old writing professor sing-songed in her head, “a good working definition of insanity, as well as boring-ass fiction.” The time for fieldwork had come. She dressed and shivered in the October air that seeped through the windows. She didn’t shower. She threw on a baseball cap as a lazy disguise.

She waited at the university gate, but Turtle didn’t come. She headed in the direction where he usually swayed along the sidewalk, but she gave up when she reached the local suicide bridge.

The next morning, when she tried to find him again, she thought she’d failed. Then she noticed Turtle, far in front of her, swimming in that t-shirt and sweats. She jogged to catch up to where she could safely follow and observe. Her lungs and thumping heart burned.

The writer had Turtle’s name all wrong, of course. She was no omniscient narrator.

She assumed the man would have some standard Chinese name, like Hu Jinfeng, which was what she used in the draft of the story that eventually got published, right beside new work by Joyce Carol Oates. The writer followed the man along the expected path, past the university main entrance and across the pedestrian bridge, and though she had tucked a small notepad into a back pocket, she knew she would just have to remember the details and jot them down later.

Turtle lugged himself across the bridge and down a grease-slicked road. The road smears had dribbled from Chinese breakfast sandwiches and leftover egg yolk from broken shells. Fish sloshing in plastic bins splashed water onto the sidewalk, wriggling on top of one another. Cheap street-food was all technically illegal. Maybe that’s why they accepted Turtle, who at any step might crash into a cart or encrusted grill. He walked through, steam rippling off broilers, and nobody said a thing, which partly disappointed her. She imagined the big man would have passed through this route so often everyone would mutter rehearsed hellos.

The route Turtle took that morning circled back around to where it started. He backtracked all the way through the streets, then back toward that suicide bridge—so called by the writer because, each year, a student or two killed themselves there, and also because the myth of Quan Yu, poet-minister who got so pissed about corruption he went ahead and drowned himself in a river. All this made the writer contemplate a novel entitled River Dragon Suicide, which she hoped to get into the hands of an agent and make money on, but which would never get published. It was her failed China Book. Everyone who lived in China for a year or two tried or at least thought of one.

Turtle and the writer passed an old section of the city wall where fortunetellers set up circles of divination. Turtle walked through and hesitated in front of two men. He stood sideways, tensed up as if expecting to be attacked.

Two men squatted on stools. One relaxed-looking gray-haired man smoked a cigarette and didn’t raise his eyes when Turtle’s shadow flashed over him. The other man, the other fortuneteller, the one who’d shaved his head, stood up. Turtle kept standing there, turning his body sideways. The writer wondered what scam was being cast at such an obviously soft target, and she must’ve spoken aloud. The fortuneteller, maybe hearing, ripped his gaze from Turtle and snapped it onto her.


It might’ve been natural for the writer to portray Turtle as a monster in her fiction. The big man had some Frankenstein in him. But that’s not what spooked the Ohio girl.

She had a dream, and it concerned someone else.

She dreamed someone was living under the staircase that led from her building’s main entrance. It was loaded with junk, and anything could be under there, even a person. She had read that homeless people sometimes broke into houses and lived in closets, venturing out only after homeowners left for work, pulling the deception off for months. It was plausible, and the weather was getting cold.

Under the stairs in the writer’s dream, though, waited the fortuneteller, the one who’d shaved his head and seemed to hear the writer’s thoughts. He was thin under the stairs, almost a dried-out log in the dream image, and what frightened the writer, what loaded everything with terror, was having to run up those stairs knowing that underneath lay a dying man who, if ignored, might reach up, snag her ankle, and make himself known.


That morning, sure what she’d written about Turtle was wrong, the writer CTRL+A deleted every word she’d written. Turtle didn’t walk every morning to carry out the work of Art. And not because the doctors had told him to exercise after the accident. A sedan with black-tinted windows, the writer had rightly guessed, had clipped Turtle while he drew an uncle’s donkey along a stretch of highway. His brain had bled and swelled, and when the swelling had receded and the surgeons had slipped in the titanium, a ferocious hunger had been born and now controlled him. It was a disease the writer had read about, and the only way to fight it was by removing all food within reach.

Turtle had one acquaintance out on the street, and it was, of course, a fortuneteller. The writer assumed Turtle went to the man to know what life offered, if anything, outside the sidewalk loop. Drawing completely from writer intuition, she conceived of the fortuneteller as murderously prescriptive. With the fortuneteller as good as blind, zero visibility, Turtle went unseen, which also meant he went unexpressed. Nobody fathomed, the writer sensed, beyond the glacial body, down to the conglomerate of confusion and anxious dreams and unutterable love for his mother that he hid, that he kept secret behind corners not because of shyness but because of the truism of permanent loss.


The writer climbed out of bed, sweating. Someone was in danger. Something wasn’t right. She was in danger.

The student beside her sucked in air and moaned. The writer scooted out of bed and went to the window.

Turtle was standing in the middle of the bridge outside. Wind blew over his body. It threw his hair back from his head, made him squint. In the streetlights, he looked pale gray. Cars zipped under, each passing vehicle startling him, making him jolt in shocked memory—memory, no doubt, of the accident. For the writer, the cosmos seemed to pivot on this center space, Turtle on a bridge, holding on as if he might fall. He was a dim plinth of mute chance and consequence, of love that welled at low tide.

The writer knew who’d driven Turtle here. She knew that if she went outside, she’d be ambushed the moment she reached the street. All details from before, all motivations and themes she’d built, led here. Her life was also at stake.

After a long time, after Turtle climbed down and wandered (she prayed) back home, the writer turned from the window, tiptoed past the sleeping body, and sat at her desk to try again.


Read Justin’s interview about “Prologue: The Writer” and his story collection in progress.