I had gotten up early, hoping to get the bulk of the work done before the afternoon sun made things uncomfortable. If I was quick, I could be done and gone before mom even got back home from Aunt Elle’s. Easy enough: just set up the garden for her, leave a note saying I was sorry I missed her, and get back home. She’d hate that of course, but I didn’t want things to get complicated. Maybe that’s what she would have wanted too, though. Something simple, painless. Who knows.
The work felt good, invigorating. I fell into the rhythm of shoveling, turning soil, breaking chunks of earth apart. Things were better like this. I felt confident using my hands. There was structure, clarity. A couple hours had passed pleasantly when the harsh sound of the shovel striking something solid broke me from my reverie. Not a rock, the point of the shovel had just barely pierced something thin and hollow. I got down on my knees and cleared the top of it off by hand. A rusted metal box. I sat and contemplated it for a moment. Then, something almost like a laugh came out of me involuntarily. Jeffy’s old Incredible Hulk lunchbox. I got on my feet. Mom needs to know about this, I thought. I have to call her. She would want to know, want to see. My knees buckled then, and I sat down hard. For a while, I just stayed there, looking at it, half buried like an artifact at an archaeological dig.
After the initial shock, I walked back to the house and searched around for some whiskey, but had to settle on a cold beer. I started thinking about covering it back up, planting the tomatoes on the south side of the yard. Instead, I picked up the small spade and set about getting it out of the ground. I did my best to get back to that place of clarity, where I was simply doing the work and not thinking about much else. The top was rusted in place, and I had to use a screwdriver to pry it open. Inside were three nickels and a quarter, a penknife, a 1987 Will Clark rookie card, a Spider Man action figure with missing right arm, assorted miniature army men, a black and yellow bandana which was wrapped around the desiccated remains of Jeffy’s pet lizard Frank, and a faded envelope, on which was scrawled:
DO NOT OPEN TIL YOU ARE 18!!!
I held the envelope in my hand, thinking about Jeffy and Max, the games they used to play; the elaborate worlds that Jeffy created around Max. Something pathetic in me hoped vainly for the possibility of some kind of forgiveness in the contents of the envelope. Maybe Max had explained that it’s an older brother’s job to toughen up younger brothers - that the truth was that I loved him. I finished the beer and got another one from the fridge. Jeffy’s eleven year old self would have hated me for this, for this intrusion into his secret world. I tried to imagine an adult Jeffy - one that would have been able to understand, but it was impossible.
I opened the envelope. The letter was faded, but legible.
Congratulations on turning 18! Have they invented hoverboards yet? I hope so. If not, you should study science in college so you can invent them. Then maybe you can figure out a way to bring Frank back to life too! He could be the six million dollar lizard, Steve Austin’s partner. I hope you’re not still sad about Frank. It wasn’t your fault.
I wonder if we’re still friends now. Mom says you’re getting too old to have friends like me. Mark doesn’t even believe I exist, but you’re my best friend. Anyway, I hope we’re still friends.
The good news is that you’re probably cool like Mark now. I bet you ride a motorcycle and drink beer.
Your Best Friend,
PS. Don’t sell the Will Clark card unless you really need money.
I read it a few times before I folded it back up and put it back in the envelope. Then I put the envelope back in the lunchbox and left it on the kitchen counter. I finished up in the garden, got another beer from the fridge, sat back down at the kitchen counter and waited for mom to get home.