A journal of narrative writing.
Digging Up Bones
Page 2

When I don’t answer, Carson comes up and stares at me. “Water.”

The puppies are wiggling and stretching, clawing for a place at their mother’s tetas.

“Now what, you stupid spic?” He stares at me, then stands over Botín and pats her with the shovel.

“I don’t like your tone, Car-son.” I straighten up and turn toward him.

“I’m waiting, Orphan.” Carson looks at me like I done something wrong.

“My name isn’t Orphan.” I rest my shoulder against one of the posts holding up the porch and squint into the afternoon glare. Somewhere down the road the boxer is howling, and I take it for a warning.

“Water.” Carson’s voice is a command.

A dry puff of wind bats at my face as I pull open the screen door and step into the dark heat of the kitchen. It smells of grease from the morning tortillas and the thick richness of café and JoJo’s tomatoes ripening in the painted blue bowl sitting in the middle of the table.

I pull two mismatched glasses out of the cupboard and set them down on the counter beside the figure of San Judás de Ateo. Through the screen door I hear Carson singing an old Stones song, something about the devil. The air stirs around me in the dim kitchen and carne de pelos dot my forearms. No such thing as ghosts. I breathe out the words and open the freezer door.

A train of cold air rushes at me. Frost is built up in layers thick and rippled as ribs. I leave the door hanging open while I root around in JoJo’s junk drawer until I find the ice pick. Curls of cold steam circle my head as I chip at the ice just enough to free up one tray of cubes. I remember tía Elena fixing dinner in the kitchen, telling me, “Lázaro, cold drinks are bad for you, mi amor” and patting me on the head while she speaks to someone I cannot see. Es buen hijo, Celestina, es muy buen hijo.

In the fog of my memory a figure drifts, mi madre, dressed in white linen waving a fan at me and laughing. Sí, pero no quiero un hijo. The cold stings my eyes. I wipe away the moisture and make one more pass at the ice. Then I see it.

The cigar box is lightly frosted, stuck under two packages of frozen fish and a loaf of cinnamon bread. I blink twice just to be sure I’m not seeing things. Coño!

I wrestle the box loose, brush off the frosty covering and set it down next to the glasses. Reaching back for a handful of ice, I stare at the treasure steaming in the afternoon heat. Hijo de puta! This is what we’ve been digging for.

On the porch Carson is pacing, his work boots shuffling in the sawdust and dirt that covers the worn flooring. I fill the glasses with water so he won’t get suspicious. If Carson can hear the water running, he won’t come in. I rub my hands down my jeans. Then I open the box.

Carson stands at the screen door, squinting into the darkened interior.

“Where’s my water, man?”

I start laughing. My voice drives him back into the sunlight.

“What’s so funny?” he asks. I just laugh harder and hand him the water. We drink, standing in the sun, sweat rolling its way down between my shoulder blades.

“Nothing,” I answer, but it’s all turned to shit.

I hear a snuffling sound and turn around. The boxer is back. Driven by anger and pride, he stalks his way toward the porch. In her basket, Botín suckles the pups. She is breathing harder and barely lifts her head when the dog barks again. I pick up Carson’s shovel and swing it. The boxer avoids the blow but comes at me, low and baring his teeth. I can’t think what to do, so I swing at him again. This time the shovel catches him in the ribs and he yelps and skitters away. Behind him I see Carson planted and watching, a strange slight smile on his moon-shaped face.

“Let’s go, amigo,” Carson says, picking up his shovel. “That was some good water.”

“Forget about the money, man,” I tell him. I think about all the receipts piled up in the cigar box, tuition forms from San Nicolás, the faded yellow bill from the bicycle shop, the bail receipt. Nothing but bones. All the coins spent, most of them long ago.


“No way, Orphan, no way. We had a plan.” Carson is looking up and down the alley, scouting for cars or junkies or one of those nosy old people who wander down from the community center. “C’mon, help me dig.”

“No.” I sit down on the porch and rest my hand on Botin’s head. The runt pushes its nose at my arm, its blind eyes quivering as it searches for its mother.

“What about the coins, man? We still ain’t got the coins.”

“There’s no coins, Car-son, no coins.”

“What are you talking about?” Carson puts on his ugly face, the one I remember from when we were younger and he didn’t get his way. I shrug.

Red from heat and anger, Carson shakes his shovel at me. “I only came here cause you said there were coins, you stupid Rican. They told me I was crazy.”

“Who’s they, Car-son?”

Carson doesn’t answer. I see his eyes blanking out, like he’s got no more words and regrets what he just said.

“Who’s they, Car-son? All those dumb white boys from the pool hall? Or maybe your old lady, maybe she says you’re crazy?”

When he looks at me again, hate spills out of his eyes and I know he is not my friend, I got no friends, and my mother ain’t never coming back to see me, you know, with a business, with my name on a sign.

Carson spits, rinses his mouth with water from the glass and throws it at me.

I duck, clenching my hands into fists, and stare at my knuckles, thinking about how close I was to getting out, just dig up the money, you know, like just get a stake. I think about JoJo studying the coins, taking books from the library, the way tía told me, and visiting the pawnshops. Pretty soon every dealer in Detroit was after him to sell his collection, but he wouldn’t do it. He spent the money, a little here, a little there, to buy me a future. He knew what I was, nobody’s boy, his girlfriend Elena’s sister’s kid, and he spent it on me anyway.

“I just wanted to make a name for myself.” I don’t mean to, but the words whistle out of me like the railroad’s song, whistle and disappear. I feel the dirt clinging to my hands and my neck, grit seeping under the edges of my T-shirt.

“Orphan, you crazy fuck, nobody knows who you are.” Carson throws his shovel down and turns his back on me, mumbling something about wasting time.

“My name ain’t Orphan.” I hear JoJo telling me my name is going to be Cañas, because a boy going to school must have a good name, one he can be proud of.  Now I can’t hear Carson’s voice, just a roaring like a thousand angry trains rushing down the tracks toward me. I imagine lifting my shovel, swinging it in one long arc. It smashes the side of Carson’s head, spraying him forward and down into the hole we dug. Then I remember JoJo’s hand patting my back, and his gentle old man’s voice telling me to let it go, hijo, let it go. I laugh so hard tears run down my cheeks and drip onto my chest.

 Carson turns back.

“Did you say something, Orphan?” His face is blotchy with rage, but under his shirt I notice his stomach is trembling. I step toward him and swing. He ducks, but he’s slow and my fist catches his left ear. He reaches for me and we scuffle, trying to grab a body part that isn’t slick with sweat. Botín growls low in her throat, shakes off the pups and jumps out of the basket. Carson lets go and I turn around. The damn boxer is back. Blood drips from a cut on his side where I hit him.

“No, Boti,” I yell but this time there’s no stopping them. Carson starts laughing, throws his five dollars down again. I dodge their snarling bodies, waving my arms and telling Boti to back off. The boxer turns toward me and snaps. I jump back, scrabble for my footing and slip to the ground. I hear a yelp and then a moan and the boxer has Botín’s neck in his teeth. “No.” My cry echoes down the street. I grab the boxer’s back legs and pull. He releases Boti and twists around, snapping his teeth. Botín jumps on his back and he turns back toward her, biting at her belly. She yelps and lunges at him, but I see the blood dripping into the dirt. Botín pants and crouches low and settles onto her side.

“Too bad,” Carson says. “You owe me five dollars.”

 The boxer growls and  angles back, pushing at the dirt for leverage. Then he comes at me. I grab Carson’s shovel, hold it up and smash it down on the boxer’s head. He quivers under the blow, flops forward and sprawls out across the stepping stones that lead from the porch to the garden.

I kneel beside Botín’s body, touch her flank. She is breathing in short bursts, her flanks heaving. Behind me, the boxer shudders. I stand up and kick at his body until he stops moving. Carson lights up another cigarette and points at the boxer with his middle finger. “Yorick’s gonna be pissed,” he says.

I kneel beside Botín and rub her back, but I can’t see too good now and the runt is mewling and I wonder how he’ll survive without a mother. I go inside and grab one of tío JoJo’s bath towels and bring it out. Carson stands and watches while I cradle her body and wrap the towel tight around belly. I can’t think what to do, maybe wait until JoJo comes back, maybe take her to the vet, but I don’t know how I’ll get there. Carson hisses at me to get rid of the boxer. I grab the dog’s back legs and drag him toward the dig.

“Help me,” I tell Carson, but he just stands there breathing through his mouth and staring at me.

There isn’t much of a hole. I motion to Carson to dig out the other end and I start hauling the dirt, piling it up around the opening. When the trench is large enough, I slide the dog’s body down. Carson is doing his little oh-shit dance, the one he always does when we get into a situation and he can’t think his way out. He pokes at the dirt pile, his T-shirt showing sweat stains under his arms and across his fat belly.

“I don’t know, man.” He swipes at his head, smearing dirt across his mouth and cheek. “What about the coins?”

I can tell he’s thinking of running, his hands flexing into fists and popping in and out of his pockets. I smell the fear on him.

“Get out of here, Car-son. I don’t need you anymore.” I don’t look at his fat, dirt-smeared face or his legs shaking inside their dusty jeans.

He takes a step toward me, then one back. Finally he shrugs and hops the fence. He slinks off, looking back every few steps to see if I’ve moved. I watch until he rounds the curve of the alley and is gone.

Setting down the shovel, I jump into the hole and scrabble at the earth until a fair amount covers the boxer’s head. Then I crawl out and start shoveling faster. I watch the earth shift and trickle into the crevices created by the dead boxer’s stiffening body. I hear Botín whimper and the pups are louder now. I work faster. Spit flies from my mouth, arcs down, and leaves a wet trail in the dust. My stomach growls. I look around to see if someone hears, but there’s no one, only me and one dead dog and the ghost of a small boy pointing at my empty hope, a sad pile of bones.