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.
Things feel partial. My love for things is partial. Mikel on his last legs, covered
in KS lesions demanded that I see the beauty of a mass of chrysanthemums. Look,
he demanded. I lied that I could see the beauty there but all I saw was a smear
of yellow flowers. I wanted to leave that place. I wanted to leave him to die
without me. And soon that’s what I did. Even the molecule I allowed myself to feel
of our last goodbye made me scream. What would have happened if I’d opened
my heart all the way as I was told to do if I wanted Jesus to live inside one of its
dank chambers? Whitman told me to unscrew the locks from the doors and the doors
themselves from the jambs. Let love come streaming in like when the St. Joe flooded
Save-A-Lot and drove it out of business. The only store in town. Don’t put my ashes
in the river Mikel said. Put them in a tributary. I did. I put them in a tributary without
touching them. Now I want to chalk my fingerprints with them but it’s too late.
I want to hold them like he held me and touched my upper lip and called it cupid’s
cusp, a phrase that made me wince. I felt love all the way then, and never since.