The year after I came out of the closet, I got a shoulder tattoo. Sitting in the art section at Barnes and Noble, before they shut down the Kahala store, I traced some ancient figures from a history of cave painting. I told the guy at the tattoo shop to copy my traced design exactly and ended up with this thing that looks like two Minotaurs butt-fucking. I decided I could live with that symbolism. I am making an effort not to write about friends and family anymore. I like talking animals. I like snakes too. The goddess within wants me to pay closer attention to the foliage in my stories. The Maple Tree becomes a character. He was carted in a red wheelbarrow as a seedling to this spot where he’s stood for thirty-five years. I am pretty sure he is male. This must be Texas.
If I say The Homosexual Agenda is eager to appear in my work, then I suppose I have acquiesced to the conceit of his existence. So what is our relationship? Do I control his action? Is he using me to provide him with narrative? I think of him as fictional. Is he a he or a she? Is that question offensive or irrelevant? I think they probably have a penis in some kind of conceptual sense. I imagine that the conceptual cock on The Homosexual Agenda is as thick as a hawser, largely inconceivable.
A boy in my community was found missing one hundred thirty-three days ago. His phone and backpack were located on the Makapu'u lighthouse loop trail. The story is not mine, so the passive voice is used. If I write that he was my student, I lie to create an emotional truth that brings me comfort. If I say I knew the family, I lie to create an emotional truth that brings me self-satisfaction. He wasn't my student, and I don't know the family, but it feels like both could be true. Is emotional truth a form of lying? This is why I am mistrustful of stories. I tell myself that fiction contains truth, but should I presume that someone else's truth exists to contain my fiction? This is how far I go into the spiral of my anxiety: to exploit a dead boy's life for truth-seeking fiction is a betrayal of the boy you are trying to respect, and to ignore the dead boy's life as you seek to write fiction is also disrespectful, a betrayal by omission. The fair thing to do is tell stories about the dead kids that fail to cohere as stories. Poetry is the art form most accepting of (and therefore resistant to) art's futility. I took a required Dante class. This would have been 2010, the year Facebook responded to a rash of suicides by queer youth by telling us to wear purple. In thrift shop Polo, in Dante class, in Arizona during a monsoon, it came to me as epiphany: write prose poems about dead children.
And then as soon as I say that, I wonder if such a statement is just so much manipulation, a ploy to get you on my side, position myself as a victim of muses. In this medium’s version I am the boy in the back yard. I am sixteen right now. I am feeling something. I don’t feel anything. I am fucked up. I cannot help it. I know I am going to Hell. I’m so fucked up. I prayed not to be like this. I love Christ. I am sixteen right now. I like to look at boys naked. I am not myself. I want to say Fuck You to Jesus, but then I am so sorry. I believe that God loves me. He might be mad at me. I really like to look at boys naked. I want him to change me, but apparently God doesn’t work like that. I have the rope. I really love Jesus. I got the rope from the garage. My dad bought a new tire swing rope two weeks ago, but that is not what I am using. I don't believe in Jesus anymore. He said it was time.
This is not a story that will, as part of its declared purpose, provide factual information about The Maple Tree. What? This is nobody’s memoir. The Maple Tree stands in the same spot for thirty years. A tree knows what death is. What? Leaves turn orange. Leaves turn brown and brittle. Leaves are stuffed in bags, carried away. The Maple Tree knows how much the dead boy weighed when he first slipped his legs through the hole in the tire swing. In a different version of this story, I will give the boy a name. What? I will give the boy a history. The muses will not appear in my dead boy scenes. They don’t want to admit to witness, or they don't want to admit to the whiteness of my witness. What?
I heard a nature writer say that if you are going to write about beauty, you have to acknowledge your own complicity in beauty’s inevitable destruction. In the fall of 2010, there was a week when mainstream news organizations reported a succession of suicides by teenagers across the country. Gay boys, girls, queer kids were hanging themselves and jumping off bridges. Of course this didn’t only happen during a week in September in 2010. That September I wore a purple shirt. This was how I was told to express my outrage and sadness and guilt over the existence of so many suicidal children. I started writing about dead boys and girls. I still haven’t figured out how to do this well. I repeat myself. I need to grapple with my own earnestness. Even right now, with this cluster of sentences, it seems to me that my vision is blurry.
I cling to some need for chronology. In 1999 I came out of the closet in Honolulu and exiled myself to Martha’s Vineyard. I craved a smaller island, strangers and winter. I took a one-day writing workshop in a beautiful home with Cape Cod shingling and a fireplace. Only after I’d paid and sat down did I realize I was the only male – the only person expressing gender in ways that identify as "man" – in the workshop. Glancing at a printed schedule, I discovered that the name of the class was “Finding The Goddess Within.” How had I missed this important detail? I ended up staying. I wasn’t sure I had a goddess within, but if I did, I thought it would be beneficial to find her. After the goddess workshop I went to an open mic at the bottom of a Congregationalist church. I sat two seats away from a young woman with a motorcycle helmet on her table. She wore leather. Her head was shaved. The emcee introduced her as “Sassy Angela”. Angela looked 19 and said in a sweet-tough voice: “Actually I am feeling kind of vulnerable tonight.” From a three-legged stool she read the world’s saddest poem about the taste of her father’s penis. Next, Livingston Taylor’s official photographer from 1983 to 1984 played folk music about oceans and dunes. Later in the parking lot Angela introduced herself. She told me she liked my work. I returned the compliment. She invited me for breakfast. I am warm and friendly when there is no sexual tension. I asked for directions.
Last night I dreamed two stories about children. In the first the lighter fluid ignited, the charcoal roared into flame. I knew I should watch the fire, but back in the kitchen the baked beans bubbled on high. I could run to and from the kitchen in no time. I knew this. After turning down the bean pan, I hopped in a fast skip toward the backyard again. When I heard my name, I turned around. My girlfriend's daughter, a toddler, walked in. She wanted water. I had to help her. Through the screen door I watched the flame leap to the wooden fence. The fence was burning. I set fire to Tania's property. If I ran to the flame, I would leave the three-year-old girl alone in the kitchen. I grabbed the kid and hopped with less levity back toward the burning fence. Tania walked in before I made it outside. She wanted to know what the fuck I was doing with her daughter. I told Tania I was taking the kid to the fire. In the second dream the happy seven-year-old watched a rat climb into his Cheetos bowl. He put his plate upside down over the bowl. After trapping the rat he didn't know what to do, so he took the thrashing rodent in the covered bowl to the trashcan with the tight metal lid. The happy seven-year-old didn't know if he should take the rat out of the bowl before he dumped it in the trash, but he was scared, so he tossed in everything. Through the tight metal lid he heard scratching and scurrying. He ran away to watch cartoons. When the boy's mother found the rat in the locked trashcan, she asked the boy what happened. The boy didn't want to get in trouble for throwing away the bowl, so he said Dad did it. The husband proclaimed his innocence. Because of nefarious business activity, the man wondered if someone had snuck into the house to send a message. The dad screamed until the mom cried. The happy seven-year-old boy confessed to the rat crime. To punish the boy for lying, the father handed the boy a lidded bucket, a brick and some hose. The happy seven-year-old boy would have to kill the rat himself.
I am going to write about the dead boy. I believe in God but exclusively as metaphor. My lack of faith in a literal lord has led to its own kind of suffering. I am thinking of butterflies all the time now. I navigate into flame. I seek creative guidance and inspiration. I struggle with the ethics of telling stories about people I love. I wrestle with tone. I understand so little about architecture and poetry. I depend on my goddess within.
I am so fucked up right now, and I consider saying goodbye out loud to The Maple Tree, and The Maple Tree tells me he can hear me, and The Maple Tree can’t exactly read my mind, but I am on his branch with the noose, and the ladder is on the ground, and he knows what I am going to do, and he doesn’t like it, but The Maple Tree accepts it, and I ask him what will happen if I jump and end up swinging here, dying slowly, struggling, and he tells me he won’t let me suffer, and he tells me if this is what I really want, then he will make sure that everything goes as planned, and I kind of feel bad for The Maple Tree, and my parents will probably blame him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a week from now he was chopped up into firewood, and come to think of it, maybe that is why The Maple Tree doesn’t want me to die, and maybe The Maple Tree is being selfish and only wants to save me so he can save himself, but I don’t think so. The Maple Tree is simple. He cares about living things. The wind is blowing, and someone somewhere is grilling, and I like fried chicken more than I like grilled chicken, and we used to go to a place called the Golden Rule in Plano that had the best chicken and gravy, and I heard someone got sick from e coli bacteria, and they closed the place down, and I like Italian food more than I like Mexican food, and my sister is a vegetarian. This is going to happen. This is going to hurt.
Timothy Dyke lives with parrots in Honolulu, Hawaii. He teaches high school students and writes poems, essays and stories. In 2012 he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. His chapbook, Awkward Hugger, was published by Tinfish Press in 2015. Tinfish will also publish his collection of linked prose poems, Atoms of Muses, in 2017. Timothy is currently working on a collection of stories.