The grief, when I finally contacted it decades later, was black, tarry, hot, like the yarrow-edged side roads we walked barefoot in the summer. Sometimes we’d come upon a toad flattened by a car tire, pressed into the softened pitch, its arms spread out a little like Jesus, and it was now part of the surface of the road, part of the road’s story. Then there was the live toad I discovered under the poison leaves of the rhubarb, hiding there among the ruby stems, and if you ate those stems raw, enough of them, you’d shit yourself for days. It isn’t easy to catch a living thing and hold it until it pees on you in fear. Its skin was the dull brown of my father’s clothes, my grandfather’s clothes as he stood behind the barber’s chair, clipping sideburns, laying a warm heap of shaving cream over a bristly chin, sharpening his straight razor and swiping it over the foam-covered cheek of my father, who often shaved twice a day, his beard was so obstinate, even in the hospital bed. When I laid a last kiss on his young cheek, the scraping hurt my lips. Do you ever wonder, in your heart of hearts, if God loves you, if the angels love you, scowling, holding their fiery swords, radiating green light? If your father loved you, if he had room to love you, given his poverty and suffering, or if a coldness had set in, a cold-bloodedness, like Keats at the end, wanting a transfusion of the reader’s life blood so he could live again. Either way, they’re all safely underground, their gentleness or ferocity, their numb love, and my father’s tar-colored hair, and the fibers of his good suit softened by wood tannins, and grandfather’s glass eye with its painted-on mud-colored iris, maybe all that’s left of him in that walnut box, and Keats and his soft brown clothes, and the poets before and after him. But their four-toed emissary sits in my hand. I feel the quickening pulse through its underbelly. Hooded eyes, molasses-tinged, unexpressive, the seam of its mouth glued shut.
Oh dream, why do you do me this way?
Again, with the digging, again with the digging up.
Once more with the shovels.
Once more, the shovels full of dirt.
The vault lid. The prying. The damp boards.
Mother beside me.
Like she’s an old hat at this.
Like all she’s got left is curiosity.
Like curiosity didn’t kill the red cat.
Such a sweet, gentle cat it was.
Here we go again, dream.
Mother, wearing her take-out-the-garbage coat.
I haven’t seen that coat in years.
The coat she wore to pick me up from school early.
She appeared at the back of the classroom, early.
Go with your mother, teacher said.
Diane, you are excused.
I was a little girl. Already a famous actress.
I looked at the other kids. I acted lucky.
Though everyone knows what an early pick-up means.
An early pick-up, dream.
What’s wrong, I asked my mother. It is early spring.
Bright sunlight. The usual birds.
Air, teetering between bearable and unbearable.
Cold, but not cold enough to shiver.
Still, dream, I shiver.
You know, my mother said.
Her long garbage coat flying.
There was a wind, that day.
A wind like a scurrying grandmother, dusting.
Look inside yourself, my mother said.
You know why I have come for you.
And still I acted lucky. Lucky to be out.
Lucky to be out in the cold world with my mother.
I’m innocent, I wanted to say.
A little white girl, trying out her innocence.
A white lamb, born into a cold field.
Frozen almost solid. Brought into the house.
Warmed all night with hair dryers.
Death? I said. Smiling. Lucky.
We’re barely to the parking lot.
Barely to the car ride home.
But the classroom already feels like the distant past.
Long ago, my classmates pitying me.
Arriving at this car full of uncles.
Were they wearing suits? Death such a formal occasion.
My sister, angry-crying next to me.
Me, encountering a fragment of evil in myself.
Evilly wanting my mother to say it.
What? I asked, smiling. My lamb on full display at the fair.
He’s dead! my sister said. Hit me in the gut with her flute.
Her flute case. Her rental flute. He’s dead!
Our father, who we were not supposed to know had been dying.
He’s dead! The flute gleaming in its red case.
Here, my mother said at home.
She’d poured us each a small glass of Pepsi
We normally couldn’t afford Pepsi.
Lucky, I acted.
He’s no longer suffering, my mother said.
Here, she said. Drink this.
The little bubbles flew. They bit my tongue.
My evil persisted. What is death? I asked.
And now, dream, once more you bring me my answer.
Dig, my mother says. Pry, she says.
I don’t want to see, dream.
The lid so damp it crumbles under my hands.
The casket just a drawerful of bones.
A drawerful. Just bones and teeth.
That one tooth he had. Crooked like mine.