Oscar is digging again. Tearing up the northeast corner of his weedy, bumpy lawn. I count silently as he hits ground. 22 … 24 … I skip odd numbers. They’re unfriendly, like people in a hurry who don’t stop to say hi. 44… 46 … 48 … I watch him from the kitchen window. I dry my hands, make a stop at the fridge, grab my backpack and leave by the side door.
There is no fence between our yards, no markings to show whose is whose. I walk over to where he’s digging, tapping my index finger in my pocket as I continue counting.
“Don’t you ever go to school, Linc?” He doesn’t look up.
“It’s 4:00, Oscar. Aren’t you supposed to be working?”
“What the hell do you think I’m doing?” He leans on his shovel, sweating through his blue polyester United States Postal Service shirt.
I pick up a charity solicitation with a nickel showing through the envelope window. I tear it open and take the nickel.
“Federal offense, kid. Knock it off.” He grabs the mail from my hand. I put the nickel in my pocket and pull out a small bottle of hand sanitizer. I use it quickly and put it away. “You’re so concerned about the sanctity of the mail, why don’t you try delivering it once in awhile?”
I jump back before his hand reaches out to smack me. He’d do it, too. Lucky I’m training to be a boxer. Bantamweight. I’m small and I move fast. Nobody can touch me.
I don’t like boxing lessons much. My dad’s making me take them because he thinks boxing will make me stop worrying about dirt and germs and be more regular. It’s been two months and I’m still the same. He looks at me all disappointed. He would be more disappointed if he knew I wash out the insides of the gloves real good every night. They feel like big, clean mittens.
“Damn, Oscar. You smell like an old burrito.” I pull out the two bottles of Bud Light I snagged when I left my house. He wipes his forehead with a gnarly- looking rag and grabs a beer. Uses the nasty rag hand to try to mess with my hair like I’m a little kid. “Touch me with that fucking rag hand again and you don’t get the bottle opener.”
He laughs, a combination of snort and bark, and pulls the bottle cap off with his back teeth. He takes a long swallow and flicks the rag at me again.
“Fuckin’ Oscar. Quit fuckin’ doing that.” He knows how I am. Some days he’s mean about it.
He finishes his Bud and grabs mine. “You’re in training, son. And underage. Grab a shovel and make yourself useful.”
I don’t help. He knows I won’t. I’ll drink a beer but I’m not going to jail for keeping people apart from their Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons. I sit on a plastic chair and watch him destroy his yard some more. The ground is hard. I count the sharp hits of the shovel and his messy, pebbly tosses.
“You know it’d probably take you less time to actually deliver this crap, don’t you?”
“You need to learn when to shut your damn mouth. You don’t know anything about it.”
“Why don’t you tell me about it then? You’re always telling me I don’t know, especially after you finish all of my dad’s beers.” I’m ready to jump again. Even chances he’ll throw a fake punch and laugh or aim for my head with his shovel. I’m ok with those odds. He’s pretty old.
I don’t have to jump. He stops digging and rests on his shovel again, staring at a mound of unwanted mail set to become part of his lumpy yard.
I look at where his eyes are pointing. There’s a garden store ad with tomato plants that look just like the ones his wife kept. She died about a year ago. A few months later, Oscar wrecked her garden and started burying the mail. My mom shook her head and looked about to cry when she saw the garden was gone. She cried a lot when Mrs. Potter died.
Their backyard used to be really nice. He used to mow the lawn every Sunday and in the summer he’d sometimes barbecue some chicken and corn on the grill and me and my mom and dad would bring over some beer and iced tea and cake. He had a rad 1969 Camaro he used to mess around with while Mrs. Potter worked in her garden. The car and the garden disappeared about the same time. My mom said not to ask him about it.
I never saw Oscar cry. Not even at the funeral. I was a little mad at him then for not missing her more. I cried a little. Mrs. Potter used to watch me after school until my mom and dad got home from work. We drew pictures with erasable markers and took walks. She and Oscar didn’t have kids. I pretended she was my mom sometimes. I think she did, too.
She’s the only one who called me by my real name — Lincoln. She smiled a lot and bought my favorite kind of soap: Dial clear anti-bacterial. Oscar smiled a lot more then.
I feel weird looking at him, like I’m peeking in his window with a set of binoculars. I wander a few steps to the space between our houses and see this girl who lives next door on the other side standing on the sidewalk. Sam. She’s carrying this umbrella she always carries. Clear with ugly, black-outlined pink flowers. I’ve only ever seen it open once. It was a gumdrop that surrounded her to her shoulders and made her look like she was in a bubble, all smeary and distant.
When we were younger, she used to sit with me on the porch swing at my house, making long necklaces out of the clover flowers she picked in handfuls while I worked my Rubik’s Cube. She doesn’t come over anymore since we started high school last year.
Oscar’s back to work. His hands are dirty and his shirt looks like one big pit stain. His pace has slowed. I slow my tapping and move closer to the street.
“Hey, Linc.” Sam’s practically in front of me. I stopped watching her to think about her and didn’t even notice her coming over.
“Oh. Hey.” I feel like there’s dirt on my face. I want to go in my house and check. I look really fast in the reflection of her sunglasses and don’t see any.
“What’s Mr. Potter doing back there?”
“Burying the mail.”
“Yeah, right.” She pushes my shoulder and laughs. I don’t mind her touching me. She looks clean and smells nice. I memorize the spot to think about later.
I’m glad she doesn’t believe me. It’s not my business to tell. My dad always says a man’s got to have his honor. If I told Oscar a secret, I know he wouldn’t tell.
I laugh, too. “Nah, he’s really just fixing up Mrs. Potter’s vegetable garden.”
“Oh, yeah. Remember those great big tomatoes she grew? I loved those.”
I remember. We used to steal some to eat like apples while we sat and swung. I feel kind of bad thinking about Mrs. Potter, wishing I hadn’t taken her tomatoes without asking. She always gave us lots anyways.
“What are you doing?” She’s looking at the front of my shorts.
I stop tapping.
“Um, nothing. I was just playing with this old nickel I found in Oscar’s yard.” I hope she looks again and sees I don’t have a boner. She’s already walking away.
“I gotta get home. See ya.” She probably won’t talk to me again until graduation.
I head inside to check my face. I notice the digging has stopped and walk back around to Oscar’s yard.
“You ok?” I tell more than ask him.
“Yeah. I’m just tired.” He looks beat. If the shovel wasn’t there to hold him up, he might melt into the ground, mixing with Crate and Barrel catalogues and Chinese restaurant takeout menus.
“You want another beer? My dad’s got four more.” He lifts his head and shoulders, focuses on the hole and raises his shovel. “Nah. That’s ok. Better get back to work.”
I count the steps home, walking in time with the sounds of his digging, ending at 182. Inside, I keep counting, washing my face and hands in the kitchen sink with clear, anti-bacterial Dial, looking out the window at Oscar working. I turn off the faucet at 468 but stay there for awhile, watching him. It’s getting dark. I hope he’ll finish soon.
I worry sometimes about what will happen if he gets caught. He might be relieved. I might be, too.
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