Tío JoJo is out to lunch. I can see his plaid-suited skinny ass weaving its way past the dry cleaners at the end of the long block across the railroad tracks. He don’t look solid, you know, more like a cartoon, all outline and no substance, hitching his way along with that limp, step-hop-step, and hitching his pants up with his free hand every other stride. He’ll be busy until three, drinking café and playing dominos. Soon as he turns the corner into Malina’s bodega, Carson and I hop the picket fence and start digging.
I have one of those square-bladed shovels, heavy, but it cuts straight lines through the grass and weeds. I like the way it divides the ground into angles, sharp ninety-degree corners, like carving meat off a bone. Carson uses a garden shovel. Its moon shape grins at me, the middle knocked out of it from hitting tombstones.
The area we start with is about the size of a grave. It’s tucked into the back corner of JoJo’s yard, behind the two overgrown juniper bushes. Carson thinks no one can see us from the road, but I’m not so sure. I turn my head to look back at the house. I see the ghost of a child bobbing up and down in the back window. Wiping my eyes, I blink away the image of myself at four watching mi tío plant peppers and spring onions and dreams.
We dig about ten minutes before Carson says, “Hey, Orphan, I’m thirsty” in that whiny, demanding voice of his, the same one he uses when he talks to his old lady.
“My name’s not Orphan.” I lean over and spit into the shallow trench. This dig is harder than our landscaping chores at the cemetery, but the payoff is better than old bones.
“Come on, Orph. I’m really thirsty.”
“I ain’t your bitch,” I say, mimicking the guys down at juvie hassling the fat night watchman who orders lights out.
Carson ignores me. He picks at the ground with his shovel for ten seconds and whines at me again.
I’m thirsty too, so I drag my shovel out of the hole and head toward the back porch. I haven’t taken two steps before I hear growling. JoJo’s bitch Botín has left her litter to confront one of the neighborhood dogs, a large brown and white boxer that has broken his chain for the third time this week. Several links still hang suspended from his studded leather collar.
I squat and call Botín to me. She bares her teeth to warn me off, then turns back toward the intruder. He’s one ugly son of a bitch. I’ve seen him nosing his way along the gutter, crossing the street like a sailboat tacking into the wind. His fur is stained and patchy and one ear is shredded so badly it flutters when he walks.
Botín is not concerned. She hunches low and steps toward him, setting each paw down with a purpose. In the basket on the porch, the puppies are squealing. The boxer hesitates. I watch his face settle into fear.
“Un momento, Car-son,” I yell back, so Carson knows something’s up. Plus it makes him mad when I yell like that, like I just got off the boat and can’t say his name right. See, he don’t like it that I can speak two languages while he can barely manage one. It makes me laugh.
Carson steps out from behind the bushes to see what is holding things up. He starts frowning as soon as he sees the dogs.
“Aw, shit,” he says. His whine has become a snarl. “That looks like Yorick’s dog. He’s one mean mother-fucker…Yorick, I mean.” Carson laughs at his own joke, but I don’t really think it’s funny. “You remember Yorick, Orphie.” I hear the snicker in his words.
I don’t answer, but I remember. Yorick, pasty white plumber’s butt showing above his jeans and hair down to his ass. Lives two lots down in a narrow crack of a house that looks like the builders forgot to put up the other half. Does odd jobs to buy porno mags and guns. Once when JoJo was gone to Malina’s, Yorick came to fix the crapper. Carson and I were raking up the backyard, hoeing the sweet little mounds of potatoes and beans, and the asshole wiped his fat face with a dirty handkerchief and asked if I was the Mexican gardener.
I just stared, trying to ignore the freak feeling that I’d been here before and it didn’t end all that well the last time. But that’s crap. The last time was Tico Galveston trying to steal some of tío’s produce. I had a right to punch him out.
“Hijo de puta,” I told him, shifting my shovel from my right hand to my left, “do I look like a Mexican?”
He hesitated just long enough to piss me off.
“I’m Rican, you dumb fuck.” I pushed him just a little with my free hand and grinned. He started to sweat. I decided to play him a little more and I pushed him again.
Just when my hands started to curl into fists, JoJo showed up. He paid Yorick, then patted my back, all the while telling me to let it go, hijo, let it go.
Carson isn’t interested in my memory trip. He picks up a handful of dirt and tosses it at the dogs.
“Orphan, we got things to do, man.”
I signal Carson that I understand. Those coins JoJo buried in a cigar box somewhere in this back yard are calling my name, and we only have two hours before he wanders back from Malina’s. I’d be halfway to finding the money right now if this piece of shit dog would just disappear.
Botín and the boxer are circling each other, making low moaning sounds deep in their throats. I’m worried about the pups, who are twisting and turning, their closed eyes no help in their search for sustenance. The littlest one, the runt of the litter, wiggles to the top of the basket and plops onto the porch floor. Botín risks a glance, then returns to her fight.
Carson starts narrating like one of those announcers at ringside before a fight. He lifts his shovel into the air and shakes it and I think of one of those actors in that old movie Planet of the Apes. Carson, he’s mugging at me, scratching under his armpit with his free hand. My laugh startles the dogs out of their stance. Suddenly there’s a rush. The two bodies collide in the air, barking and scratching. Carson takes out a five-dollar bill and lays it on the ground.
“Five says Botí takes him.” His eyes are wild and he’s panting like someone who just had a good fuck.
“Estás tostao’!” I take out my last dollar and place it next to his, but I’m not really betting, my money’s just for show. I already know who’s going to win. Botín is a good mother.
The boxer is backing off. He lunges a few more times, then dips his head in defeat and slips out of the yard. For some reason, I think about Carson and me jumping the fence, all the change in our pockets jingling and falling onto the patchwork grass and dirt that is JoJo’s yard. Coins above the ground and coins under it. Jingle, jingle. It makes me laugh. Carson looks at me. He can’t figure out why I’m laughing.
Botín is laying on her side panting hard. I see scratches along her neck, but they don’t look too bad. “Good dog, Botí, good dog.” I inch my way closer and slip my arms under her body. She is slick with milk and sweat from the fight. The puppies are mewling.
Carson looks at the dog lying on the ground and apes at me again. “Stop talking to this bitch of a dog and get me a drink.” He aims a kick at Botín, takes a tighter grip on his shovel and lights a cigarette.
Down the street, the bar beside the railroad tracks clangs down and I hear a train whistle mourning its way closer to the crossing. I settle Botín in the basket, pick up the fallen pup and place it close to her body. She ignores the pup but licks my head when I bend over her. I rub my hand over my hair, still stubbly but growing out from the prison haircut, six months for assaulting Galveston shortened due to good behavior.
“Thirsty, Orphan!” Carson stands looking toward the sound of the freight engine. I can’t see his face.
Have we ever done this before? No, hombre. I ain’t never stole from mi tío, but I got a plan to get me a stake and make something happen, you know, like fix up that old garage on Bronston’s Ferry Road, maybe repair cars and shit. It beats hanging around the pool hall fending off the crack dealers or getting propositioned every other afternoon. Runts like me don’t have it so easy, you know, and Carson, he’s just a loser, but I’ve known him since we were in diapers. His mom left him too, so we, like, got something in common.