Today I pulled back the lid of my old turtle sandbox. You know the one; green, plastic, a round lid shaped like a shell. I’m sure most kids had one of these in their yard. This was the first time I peeled back the turtle’s shell in over three years.
There were several cracks and holes in the sun-bleached green plastic. A myriad of white streaks had been scratched into the turtle’s base from a weed-whacker. Crusting white bird droppings spattered the shell. Openings in the lid had let in enough light for weeds to form a layer over the sand inside. Dried feces from my deceased cat were entangled in the dense forest of saw grass and dandelions.
I placed the lid in the lawn and picked up a rake. I stroked the layer of weeds with the rake’s teeth, watching them break up the clumps of dried sand. A mesh of browned grass clippings clung to the teeth like strings of celery catching in your molars. I tapped the rake against the turtle’s edge and the dried grass fell onto the lawn. The rake’s wooden handle was smooth in my palms. Reaching forward, I dug its teeth into the sand on the far edge. Sinking it in deeper, I firmly tugged the rake across the sandbox, hearing the roots of the weeds snap in opposition. In the wake of the teeth, smooth caramel-colored sand came into sight. I dragged the weeds to the edge closest my toes and tapped the rake against the turtle’s base again. The clump of plants fell atop the dried grass clippings. In the sandbox, the line of smooth sand in the weeds looked like a brown river cutting through a jungle. Surprised at how easily the weeds were pulled, I decided to widen the river of sand. Soon the whole jungle was lying in a heap beside the plastic turtle’s feet.
With the weeds and cat feces removed, the bare sand made a reversed oasis before me. The circle of sand was surrounded by lush green lawn, like a dry desert found in the middle of a tropical rainforest. Just what I wanted.
Stabbing the rake back into the sand, I dragged the teeth over the loose soil, catching the remnants of roots and small green leaves. I brushed them into the pile of junk I had pulled out before hoisting it all into a wheelbarrow. Kneeling down in the lawn, one hand wrapped around the plastic edge while the other dove into the loosened sand. It was cool. I squeezed my hands around hardened clumps and felt them loosen. Sifting through, my fingers brushed against a soggy fag I had dropped in here years ago. Crystals of sand glistened on the burnt tip and a clump of dirt filled the hole where my fourteen-year-old mouth had once inhaled smoke. I lifted the cigarette from the sand and tossed it in the wheelbarrow behind me. Several more were thrown in behind it.
Once my hands could no longer find cigarettes, I dug the rake back in. I moved the sand from one side to the other until I heard the teeth scrape against metal. I pulled up a dented Coke can and placed it in the wheelbarrow with the weeds and cigarettes. Some of the lettering had faded on the aluminum can, but I could still make out the flowing Coca-Cola script. I continued digging and tossed a mangled Sprite can riddled with BB holes into the wheelbarrow. John always had Coke, but I preferred Sprite. My mother didn’t like us having pop, and like the cigarettes, we figured she wouldn’t check the sandbox.
Setting the rake aside, I knelt down again and drowned my hands into the loosened sand. I brushed over a layer of clumped dirt and a smooth white bone peered up from the soil. Like the dinosaur I had always wished to find as a child, I gently brushed away the sand around the bone and removed a small skeleton. It was dwarfed in my hands.
“Cotton…” I breathed, envisioning my hamster’s beady eyes looking up at me from the diminutive skull. The tiny bones glistened in my calloused hands. My ten-year-old tears must’ve deteriorated the shoebox. Besides the water rushing to the corners of my eyes, burying him was the last time I cried. Gently, I rested the bones on the turtle’s head before picking up the rake again.
Spiderman and Donatello (the purple ninja turtle) soon found themselves tangled in the metal teeth. The sands of time caught them amidst a grand adventure. Carefully, I pulled them out from the rake and brushed the dirt from their plastic arms. Spidey’s hands forever frozen in the web-release position, he would eternally be the envy of my lust for superpowers. Donnie’s lean and green biceps shone in the sunlight. His brilliant mind and aptness at inventing would always inspire me. I leaned them against the side of the sandbox and continued excavating.
My hands plunged further into the depths of sand. My fingernails scraped against plastic, so I fished out a small red shovel and a broken yellow pal. My first set of tools to sculpt the many castles that once existed beneath the turtle shell. Through the kitchen window, my mother would wave to me with a little yellow sponge and I would wave back with the little red shovel. Exchanging smiles, we’d both return to our work. She would dip her hands back in the soapy water of the sink and I would dip mine back in the sand of my turtle sandbox.
I placed the pal and shovel beside the action figures.
The rake’s teeth dug through the last layer of firm sand before tearing a gash in the black plastic that lined the bottom. I sighed. Then I raked through the rest of the sand before leveling it out. I tossed the broken pal, cigarettes, and dented pop cans in the trash and dumped the pulled weeds and grass clippings in the compost heap. I brought the action figures and shovel inside and placed Cotton’s skeleton in a small wooden box. With a piece of sandpaper and a bucket of soapy water, I went about the base of the turtle, buffing out the scrapes and washing away the dirt and fungus. I did likewise to the lid, scrubbing off the white bird droppings and carefully gluing the cracks shut. I leaned the shell against the fence to dry and stared at the sand.
I got an idea.
Several large rocks sat along the base of the fence, rejected by the garden my parents dug last spring. With the rest of my soapy water, I scrubbed the mold and caked dirt from their surface. I liked the rocks. Almost as much I liked raking. But I loved my sandbox.
So much of my childhood could be regenerated by the geological time scale of this sandbox. Dating back nineteen years, an accidental time capsule had been created beneath the plastic shell. I smiled. The rake was dropped into the sandbox again and I keenly moved the teeth through the clean sand. It was suitably repurposed. As I rested my rake against the wooden fence, the sun was glowing red on the horizon. I laid the stones in the smooth sand and positioned the clean shell over my new garden. I was a backyard archaeologist, an explorer in the sands of time, a seeker of Zen.