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.