First, be curious. This is what your father wants. He wants you to touch things that crawl out of mud, things that have four times the legs you do. He does not want to have to drag you, kicking and screaming, to the edge of a lake. He does not want you to pull your thumb away, spongy and vulnerable, when he pries open the jaw of the bullhead. His hands are hard. He wants you to feel what teeth are like on your skin, once in your life.
When he is fixing the cabinet, the radio, the muffler, he wants you to touch his tools, the hatched grit of the file, the long silver curl of the drill bit, the steel claw and smooth foot of the hammer. He wants you to have sawdust and grease on your tongue. He wants iron in your blood. He wants you to smell smoke, and be able to tell what’s burning. He does not want you to pull the tape measure out too far.
Second, when he is not looking — and he is always looking, even in his sleep he is looking, even when you and everyone else dreams, he is looking, he is weighing the rain on the roof, listening for the bend in the cottonwood trees, he is standing in the garage, watching the storm — only when he is not looking directly at you should you dig deeper into his tool chest, past the things he wants you to touch. You should pull those things out, move your fingers into corners, down to the places where things are sharper, past the blade he forgot to retract, past the barbs that hooked the heavy ones, past the points of nails for all the things he’s yet to hang or make steady. You should move past these things quietly, you should wait until he’s started to hum, until his mind has left his work, until his song is simple and unfamiliar and without melody.
You should keep digging. Your fingers should get dirty. You should begin to sweat in milky beads around your forehead. Your elbows should get a scratch from the latch in front. You should look up at your father, make sure he’s still painting the primer, gapping the leaks, checking the corners of the small white house on his bench, the little home that will soon be safe for birds. After a while, you should find it.
It will not feel like anything else in the box. It will not be tall and rigid; it will not have a wood handle. It will not have the feel of something practical. It will be imperfect. It will be at the very bottom. It will be a figure, a toy, a soldier — a metal soldier, as tall as your finger can get from your thumb. You should feel how heavy it is. You should grab it, take it out carefully and hold it in your hand. Despite the rust at its feet, despite the bend in its rifle, despite the gouges and scars across its face and sand under the rim its helmet, you should admire it.
You should take this moment, now. You should imagine how he felt when he unearthed it, when scratching lazily into the earth one afternoon, looking for buried treasure in the alley, the school yard lot, and this of all his empty days, finding it.
Now this is very important. You should not walk over to him, carrying it behind your back. You should not act as though you found it. You should not assume that because it is small and that it makes your hand feel full that it is yours. You should not assume that it is still under orders, on duty or ready to serve. You should not assume that it was forged for a boy’s command. And you should not ask him for it. You should not assume that the man who gave you life, who gives you roof and food, will give you this.
You should put it back where you found it. You should bury it, back into the chest, deep under the tools and nails.
If you don’t do this, you shouldn’t be surprised when you look again and cannot find it. You shouldn’t wait for years to pass until he sits beside you, pulling it out the box, telling you how he found it, what it has meant to him, how important it is, what it signifies. You shouldn’t wait for an explanation. You should work beside him, rebuilding the deck, breaking apart concrete foundations and expect to hear nothing but the din of the jackhammer, breaking cracks and tears into the rock. Afterward, you should have a beer with him, even if you don’t like it very much.
When he dies, you should try to find the men who served with him. You should look up his rank, his officer, the name of the ship he sailed on. You should be curious. You should ask the men he served with questions about him. You should try to laugh with them. You should talk about how much he loved fishing, how good he was with his hands.
Later, when you are helping your mother with the estate, you should not be surprised if she offers you his tools. Her eyes will be heavy. The house will be in some disrepair. You should take the tools without discussion. You should try to get some sleep that night. You should resist the temptation to get up, to walk to the garage. If you don’t, you should not be surprised to see him there, standing in the garage, awake, weary, looking out at the rain.
You should wake up early. You should make breakfast. You should kiss your mother and take the chest home with you. It belongs to you now. When you get home, you should find a place for it. You should kiss your wife. Her breath will be warm. She will notice how cold your hands are. She will want to sleep with you, and you should. Her breasts will be full, and her stomach wide and heavy. You will feel her hands in your hair and her teeth on your shoulder.
Finally, later, when your house is dark and sleeping, you should not rise and walk to the garage. You should not open the chest, reach inside the deep corners with your fingers and search for something of your father’s. If you do, you should understand that he has taken it with him, back down into the earth.