Each of Us Chimera

Soon after he came home to Arkansas,
mother’s cousin Larry became a stone on a hill.
She tells of the monkey leashed

and taught to ride his shoulder
as he walked the couple blocks to Main
when they were young, the sixties. They didn’t

know each other well, but my mother shows me, 
as we drive by his old house,
where the big cage would rest,

there, and she tells me how the cotton drifted 
like snow into brightening ditches
up and down every street. I imagine

a white-faced capuchin, a pirate’s pet,
with a smart red vest. She spins
and I weave the memories. I ask her

anything—the old names of mountains 
and saints, how to stay awake,
how her cousin Larry died, and the others,

how she thinks the world thinks. She tells me 
and I remember. We creatures of the small 
and yet collective. Our understanding

shimmers like schools of thought, glinting 
as it turns. She says she never suspected 
me, though, that I would have this

avuncular need. Larry, too, my original: how 
some gay men say family to mean refuge, 
refutation. I needed to imagine him,

to see his end. The flat and unsurprisingly plain 
stone, laid next to Eulah and Oren. Beyond 
sentiment, July, 1989: nothing to do

with AIDS, nothing to do
with ghosts, those flimsy fads, nothing to do 
with wanting someone to have gone before

and come back. How even epitaphs can lose 
their certainty. He died before we ever met, 
but I wanted to touch what remained,

to keep the conversation ever approaching.
Visiting from Milwaukee, my ex noticed
so many of the markers read UNKNOWN.

Older than me, he ’d never seen that before.
The first thing he did back at the car 
was gasp dramatically. What?

Looking at his phone, he said Carole King 
had died. But, it was a hoax. She lives 
somewhere in Idaho. Someone once told me

gay men have become a commercial 
of themselves. But, I thought we were 
done buying that bullshit. Look,

something is owed, some reflection, 
some response. Are we meant to be both, 
adjective and suffix? Let me replace

by addition. Consider that fetal genetic material 
migrates to a mother’s brain and remains 
postpartum, reprogramming connections.

Some mirrors have more questions. 
They say time, too, listens from behind.
At almost seventy, Mom lives

in event afterglow. No one’s story is over, yet 
half of our family has fit 
back into the earth, into its endless holes.

We try to make them proud.
It was a rhesus, she corrects me. 
A rhesus monkey,

she says after reading this. He kept it 
in a chicken-wire cage and carried it 
around town on his shoulder.

That was when the cotton gin
was still going and the streets and the air 
had a certain quality, wispy. Mom said

he didn’t have the same energy 
she was used to feeling from other 
men. He was missing something,

neutral, flicked off or . . . Her father
asked her what she thought of him, fishing
for some confirmation, she figured. There were

questions when he died. She said
that he was different, said she didn’t
know. I like to think of him that way,

impossible to know. We are in the process 
of a certain unraveling, as if the past 
exploded and this is the sense

the parts have made. I ask her anyway. 
Our understanding glinting as it turns. 
Let this be why he came home,

not to die but to recombine. Cotton 
lining every ditch, she said,
like something torn apart.

 

Tobias Wray’s debut poetry collection, No Doubt I Will Return a Different Man (Cleveland State University Press, 2021), was selected by Randall Mann for the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. His work has found homes in various literary journals, including Blackbird, Bellingham Review, Meridian, Third Coast, and Hunger Mountain. Some poems also appear in the forthcoming The Queer Nature Anthology (Autumn House Press, 2021) and The Queer Movement Anthology of Literatures (Seagull Books, 2021). He directs the creative-writing programs at the University of Idaho on the Palouse, where he lives with his hiking partner, Andy.