★“King’s narrative concerns are racism, patriarchy, colonialism, white privilege, and the ingrained systems that perpetuate them. . . . [Dig] will speak profoundly to a generation of young people who are waking up to the societal sins of the past and working toward a more equitable future.”—Horn Book, starred review
“I’ve never understood white people who can’t admit they’re white. I mean, white isn’t just a color. And maybe that’s the problem for them. White is a passport. It’s a ticket.”
Five estranged cousins are lost in a maze of their family’s tangled secrets. Their grandparents, former potato farmers Gottfried and Marla Hemmings, managed to trade digging spuds for developing subdivisions and now they sit atop a million-dollar bank account—wealth they’ve refused to pass on to their adult children or their five teenage grandchildren. “Because we want them to thrive,” Marla always says.
But for the Hemmings cousins, “thriving” feels a lot like slowly dying of a poison they started taking the moment they were born. As the rot beneath the surface of the Hemmings’ white suburban respectability destroys the family from within, the cousins find their ways back to one another, just in time to uncover the terrible cost of maintaining the family name.
With her inimitable surrealism, award winner A.S. King exposes how a toxic culture of polite white supremacy tears a family apart and how one determined generation can dig its way out.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Part One: Introductions
Cast in Order of Appearance:
Marla & Gottfried
Two Dead Robins
Jake & Bill: The Marks Brothers The Snake
Marla & Gottfried’s Easter Dinner
April 1, 2018
Marla Hemmings is hiding neon-colored plastic Easter eggs in the front flower bed. Four feet behind her, Gottfried is hacking at a patch of onion grass with a trowel. He stops to watch two spring robins chirp from a limb.
“Do you think these are too hidden?” Marla asks.
Gottfried goes back to his onion grass. “They’ll find ’em.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“They always find ’em.”
Gottfried looks back at the robins. He thinks of a day back when he’d just learned to drive.Seventeen at the most. Did he say that out loud? Marla looks at him as if he did. He thinks it again. Seventeen years old. Driving that finned 1960 Dodge Matador wagon his whole family used to fit into for trips to the beach or his faraway track meets. Warm day, just like this one. Easter coming. The two robins dancing in the middle of the road. He thought they were dancing. Then he thought they were fighting. Then he knew what they were doing. Seventeen is old enough to know what robins do in springtime.
“I’m going to the side now,” Marla says. She adjusts her gardening apron, picks up her basket of gleaming plastic eggs, and watches Gottfried looking at the robins. “You’ll have to get the ham on soon.”
“Ham,” Gottfried says. “Gotcha.”
Marla shakes her head. She wonders sometimes if her husband is losing his mind. He only ever needed to go to work and mow the lawn. She raised five children and did all the work that came with it and she isn’t losingher mind.
The car was going too fast to stop. The robins were jumping up and then landing for another session, then rising again. By the time Gottfried got near enough to them to know he was going to hit them, he couldn’t slow down more than he had already. Thirty miles per hour to a robin is fast enough. Before he took the car home, he drove all the way across town to the automatic car wash. During the spray cycle he’d cried.
Gottfried never believed in the resurrection. Marla’s insistence on perfect Easter egg hunts since the kids were little annoyed him. Her obsession with them now that there were grandchildren was infuriating, especially considering their grandchildren were mostly grown—teenagers. When she asks questions like that—did he think the eggs weretoo hidden?—he wonders if Marla is losing her mind.
She says, “And don’t forget to peel the potatoes!”
He throws the lumps of onion grass into the woods that surround the house.
He goes inside and washes his hands.
He puts the ham in the roaster.
He empties a five-pound bag of potatoes in the sink and retrieves the peeler from the drawer. As he slices the skin off inch by inch, he thinks of the robins again and cries.
Jake & Bill can bring the snake out now
April 1, 2018
Jake Marks and his older brother, Bill, walk through the high school parking lot. Bill has his snake with him—wrapped around his neck and tucked into his coat. Jake has the look of skipping school on his face even though it’s a Sunday and a holiday. Could be a school day for all he knows. He gives no fucks. Jake never gives any fucks. It was once suggested that the school should rename the in-school suspension room the Jake-Marks-Gives-Zero-Fucks Room.
Jake’s just flowing in Bill’s wake. Six years between them, and the two act like twins, which is sad if you think about it. Either Bill is seriously immature or Jake is growing up too fast. Smoked since he was ten. Crashed his first car at twelve.
Part 1.1: Introducing the Shoveler and the Freak
Cast in Order of Appearance:
The Shoveler’s Mom
Mike the Neighbor
Mrs. Second Grade
Penny & Doug or Dirk or Don
The Freak, Flickering
Half-Wit High School Bitches Kelly & Mika
The Freak’s Mom and Dad
The Shoveler’s Shovel
Bill with the Neck Tattoo
The Talking Dirt
The Shoveler: the Snowstorm & Mr. ________son
84 Days before Marla & Gottfried’s Easter Dinner
My phone rings and it makes no sense that my phone is ringing because I’m in the ocean. It’s dark—storm coming in, threatening sky, and I’m trying to make it to shore ahead of the storm. It’s not a scary place, even though the waves are twenty feet high and getting higher. But I am at one with the ocean. Every time a wave rises behind me, I turn to look and then dip my head calmly under water until the wave passes. Then I walk toward shore until the next wave comes and I do the same.
There are people on shore, but I don’t know who they are. They seem worried about me, but I’m fine.
I picked up the phone. There was a man on the other end and it wasn’t my father.
It’s never my father.
“Hello?” he said.
“Is ______________ there?” I don’t remember the name—I didn’t even hear it when he said it. It was Sunday morning at 5:33 a.m.—I was still chest deep, walking to shore. He’d heard my answer—scratchy, tired and dreaming. He knew he had the wrong number.
“I think you have the wrong number.”
“This is Mr. ________son.”
“Wrong number,” I said again.
“Sorry to bother you,” he said. He sounded like he was heading to church. His voice was the choir. Soft, understanding, sorry. He hung up.
Before I fell back to sleep, I knew what his name was. I repeated it to myself a hundred times so I’d remember. But I didn’t remember it when I woke up. I ran through all the names. Stephenson, Richardson, Davidson, Hutchinson, Robinson, Johnson, Morrison, Nicholson, Jefferson. None of them were his name.
But he was somebody’s son.
I check to make sure the call wasn’t in my head. But it’s there on my recent calls list. 5:33. A call from 407-555-1790. Maybe it was the coast guard calling to make sure I got out of the ocean okay. Maybe it was just a guy trying to wake up his church buddy. Maybe they were going fishing after the sermon. Maybe they were going to rob a convenience store. Maybe they were going to visit a friend in the hospital. Maybe they were going to drive to New York City to see a show.
I don’t know how to stop the variables.
I know Mr. ________son wasn’t calling for my mother. No one calls for my mother. It’s not that she’s unlikeable; she’s just hard to locate. Today, Sunday, she’s trying to organize the kitchen. We moved in three days ago and she can’t find her big potato pot. This is a problem.
“Are you sure you didn’t use it for something?” she asks me.
“I don’t understand where it could’ve gone,” she says.
“Still three boxes in the shed out back that we never opened.”
She sighs and frowns. “Those are all clothes. Not pots. I put all the kitchen stuff in kitchen boxes. I know how to pack.”
We’ve moved seventeen times as far as I can remember and I’m sixteen. She knows how to pack.
“It’s not like I have a lot of stuff,” she says.
“I’ll go check the boxes anyway. Maybe things got mixed up. Can’t hurt.”
She smiles and the teakettle on the stove whistles and she turns off the blue gas flame and pours the steaming water into a bowl of instant oatmeal and makes a cup of tea with the rest. The way she stirs the oatmeal. The way she wrings out the teabag with the string—it’s confident. My mother is confident about oatmeal and tea and she knows how to pack.
She has trouble with money. Paying rent. Communicating effectively with bosses, landlords, and the electric company. She has trouble telling the truth.
She won’t tell me who my father is, but I know she knows.
I go to the shed—there’s light snow falling—and I find the boxes already opened. It’s a shared shed, for all the tenants of the building. I don’t know if she opened the boxes or if someone else did. They weren’t open yesterday when I came out here to sneak a cigarette.
Now the boxes’ flaps lie open, and the items inside seem vulnerable and frightened. My summer clothes that probably won’t fit me by summer. My swimming trunks. My flip-flops. All shivering.
I reach my hand down the sides, inspecting every layer. I find the potato pot in the second box and pull it out and put it on the floor of the shed. Then I find a shopping bag full of kitchen utensils. I put it inside the pot. Then I fold the boxes back the way they should be—flap over, flap under—and stack them in the back corner as far away from the lawn mower as I can so our stuff won’t smell like cut grass and gasoline.
I light a cigarette. I think about my summer clothes. I think about Texas and Arizona and Nebraska, my last three summers. Sometimes I try to remember the names of my friends in the places I remember living, but their names are as inaccessible as Mr. ________son’s. I remember such little things. I remember the name of a lizard in a third-grade classroom. Pollo—pronounced the Spanish way with the twols as a y. Dumb name for a lizard. Pollo is Spanish for “chicken”—the kind you eat, not the animal. Maybe it was a joke. Maybe lizard tastes like chicken. I can’t remember the teacher’s name or else I’d write to him and ask about why he named his lizard chicken. He had a reptile tie for every day of the week.
I remember one best friend per location, if I had one. My other friends all blend into one another. JoshSethJaiquanRayRayBillSumo. Before this apartment, we lived in a smaller one with brick walls; and next door lived Barry, the Texan boy who taught me how to smoke. I would always remember Barry. A kid doesn’t forget the boy who taught him to smoke.
Barry thought it was weird for me and Mom to share a bed, but we only had one bed and one room and I got sick of sleeping on the floor and she didn’t mind and it wasn’t like we did anything inappropriate because that’s not how we do things. We just survive. Potatoes and corn bread. Potatoes and pork chops. Potatoes and sweet corn. Potatoes and roast chicken. Who cares where we dream?
The weather forecast says we’re about to get a real blizzard—maybe three feet. I walk back up the stairs to the apartment—a two-story, two-bedroom with thin windows—and I hand the potato pot to Mom and she looks like I just gave her a Cadillac with a million dollars inside. Then her face changes direction.
“Don’t think I don’t smell that on you,” she says. “How are you even affording those things?”
“I had a pack I brought with me,” I say.
She starts the hot water so she can wash the potato pot. “We need jobs,” she says. She points to the newspaper, open on the breakfast bar.
“Tomorrow morning I’m going to the temp agency and see what they can find for me.”
“You probably won’t get there until Tuesday or even Wednesday. Blizzard.”
She doesn’t say anything because we both know the last thing Mom wants is a job.
I open the newspaper to the help-wanted section. Truck drivers, a battery plant, and third shift at the factory a block down the road. The neighbor guy, Mike, who loaned me his snow shovel yesterday told me the factory makes mousetraps. I made a joke about how there’s probably no mice on 3rd Street, which is good because our last two apartments had mice who ate the junk food I used to hide. When he laughed, I felt like life could be okay here.
At my age I’m supposed to be chasing girls, doing homework, hanging out at McDonald’s on Friday and Saturday night goofing around with other high school sophomores. But Mike is more my style, even though he’s in his thirties. He has a good job and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and in winter he drives a small pickup truck. I think he’s a happy guy even though he lives with his mother. I’m a happy guy and I live with my mother.
“If you see anything part-time, let me know,” I say. “Only jobs in here are full-time.”
“Will do,” Mom says. She’s done peeling potatoes now. “I have to walk over to the grocery in a minute. Will you keep an eye on these? I don’t want ’em to boil over.”
She thinks I don’t know that she’s going to be gone for more than an hour. She thinks I don’t know that she shoplifts pork loins and chicken breasts. She thinks I don’t know that she’s choosing to walk to the grocery in a snowstorm because it’ll be packed with people buying milk and toilet paper so her bulging pockets will go unnoticed. She thinks I don’t know she flirts with Mike next door, even though we’ve only been here three days. She thinks I don’t know about the calls from the last landlord who took her to court. She thinks I don’t know about how she has bad credit. She thinks I don’t know about her using other people’s details to get the electric hooked up—stealing people’s trash bags and digging through them for anything she can find. She thinks I don’t know that she steals a single cigarette from me every Saturday night and smokes it on the front porch.
I can’t stop the variables.
She can’t stop the variables.
Every night, we eat potatoes.