Tyler Patton was black, or African-American, or a nigger, or what have you. He did not know when he ceased to be black, but when they spoke of him now, they used the past tense and not only in regards to his ethnicity. Yes, he was black, but he also was an honor student, he was on the track and field team, he was a bassist, he was alive. Supposedly, all of those aspects of his character ceased to be. He was no longer black; he simply was.Of course, he never considered himself black anyway—not in the sense that society considered one black. For one, he had never set foot in a ghetto, and all black men, all black men of merit, hailed from the ghetto. Eazy E, the man he had idealized since he had been capable of such a fixation, came from the ghetto. Died there, too. But Tyler's mother begat her son in a Presbyterian hospital, in close proximity to at least two coffee shops where seldom an NWA track was heard.
Tell them where you’re from, Tyler:
“Straight out of Plano.”
A suburb of Dallas … doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? He possessed no gold teeth though he had had a couple of fillings, he did not drive a Cadillac, he did not own rims for his non-existent Cadillac, he did not play nor did he enjoy watching basketball, he had no aspirations to rise from rags to riches, he believed most fried chicken was too greasy, and he had never met a watermelon he enjoyed. Now, he did not simplify those qualities into a prototypical black man. He would not even consider that portrayal a stereotypical black man, but somewhere in his sub-conscious, he figured he should have been that person, should have crafted a more suave and seventies-soul-brother persona. In his thoughts he sounded smooth, hearing the voice of a middle aged Barry White rather than the scrawny teenager who actually spoke and earnestly believing that smoothness to accurately speak on behalf of his character, but that man--that negro Casanova--existed only in his father. He was not his father, a man as black as society defined black, and now, and not only because of the condition of his deadness, he would never be his father. With surgery, he could have been his mother, and without it, he still possessed the nerdy suburban mentality she held. However, as much love as he had for his mother, he did not want to be that person. He wanted the “Black Power,” television negro, character—the black men who made records, made money, impressed women.
Yet he was no better or worse for not being that person. And now, he was nothing at all. He simply was.
He simply drifted through the halls, drifting as one envisions an apparition to drift. Drifting, not like an automobile, but like a masculine Florence Nightingale. Only, instead of drifting through the wings of a damp, dark British hospital, he drifted through the halls of a damp, dark American high school. He was The Senior with the Lamp, seen only at night. In truth, he had only carried the lamp once, but the title stuck nonetheless. Many claimed his death was unfair. That it seemed wrong for a boy to die so close to graduation, so close to adult autonomy--to cold, hard reality, as his father dubbed it. Tyler knew it was not unfair. It simply was. No more, no less. Often, he wondered when he would lose these earthly thoughts. Hadn’t the Bible said that he would put to rest all worldly affairs in death? Or had he read that elsewhere? Regardless, he could not keep his mind off the earth. Could not abstain from visiting Plano—his school, his home, his church, the music venues where he bounced around like a hair metal court jester, the back seat of the ’96 Chevy where he almost lost his virginity to Kayla Harrell who almost made the biggest mistake in her life (or so she said anyway). He thought of lyrics from his favorite hip-hop songs, playing the beats for his benefit alone. When the Saints told him to eradicate such thoughts, he told them not push him because he was close to the edge and that he was trying not lose his head. Ignoring and not quite understanding the reference, they warned him to kill his secular attachment and told him not to threaten Saints. Perhaps, they too struggled to assimilate into Heaven’s culture upon passing. Saint John the Baptist missed his head and often mused on its departure. Saint Ignatius longed for one more card game with his fellow Jesuits. Saint Augustine maintained a secret desire for a mistress that caught his eye, and much more, in Carthage. Saint Paul longed to ride his favorite donkey through the streets of Jerusalem one last time. That was all speculation, however. With further thought, he believed that all others had assimilated with ease, and only he held onto worldly cravings. Nonetheless, he never alluded to Grandmaster Flash again, not out loud anyway.
Home-sick, that was the illness that came to mind. He enjoyed the streets of gold, the mansions, the hosts of angelic choirs, but he missed Method Man with the same sense of longing one held for a departed best friend. He missed Cee-Lo Green singing songs about soul food and warning other niggers of his sexual prowess. Moreover, he missed the emotions they instilled in him—that African-American feeling that often eluded him as he drove past cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac and trendy clothing store after trendy clothing store. He missed Katie Sears, his non-Method Man best friend. She had always said that she wanted a gay best friend, like the ones in the movies. The ones who would make a quip and solve all of her problems, but when she discovered that no such friend existed, she settled for the heterosexual Tyler Patton who did not make jokes, not good ones, and could only solve math problems. Tyler had always said that he wanted to date Katie Sears, but she never felt the same, so they remained friends. Eventually, he bore pride in the arrangement. He was glad to have such a good friend, such a gorgeous friend, who would do anything for him--expect kiss or have sex with him. Now, he simply was.
He still talked to Katie on a regular basis. She did not call him Tyler Nightingale as her peers had dubbed him, but she did find the name amusing. Tyler did not, but he let her have the joke. Whenever they spoke, he thought of the warnings of the Saints, and he could not comprehend how he could forgo these conversations, this relationship, for some golden roads and a mansion or two. Moreover, he did not even enjoy the music of harps. Tyler enjoyed drum machines and turntables. He enjoyed Biggie spitting rhymes about being on top of the world. The angels knew one word and they sang it ad nauseam. Where was the word play? The double entendres? The puns? Couldn’t they see that he was not entertained by the prospects of Heaven? And to think, they wanted him to exchange Katie Sears for some harps. He couldn’t do it.
“I can’t do it.”
“Is Heaven really that bad?”
“Then why can’t you let go?”
That was the question he couldn’t answer. Give him a question pertaining to trigonometry, and he would answer it. Ask him his opinion on the political turmoil in the Middle East, and he would give it. Inquire which episode of Star Trek claimed the title of favorite, and he would write an essay extensively detailing the response; however, if asked why he could not let go of hip-hop, Katie, Plano, his lips would meld together and fall from his face—no hyperbole intended.
“Why can’t your mom let go?”
“You’re better than that.”
“Don’t let the halo and robes fool you.”
“You know, for a minute, I actually mistook you for an angel.”
“If I’m not an angel, what am I?”
“And what’s a Tyler?”
“A sort of … vile beast, found only on the African plains,” her voice deepened to a startling yet sensual baritone. Who knew that female register could sink so low? Even she expressed some surprise when first the voice escaped. “It is said that the natives ride these annoying creatures,” she stood to her feet, raising her fist into the air like a beacon of triumph, “INTO THE GREAT UNKNOWN!”
Katie fell back laughing, letting her voice return to its usual high and female register. The change was jarring and evident.
Tyler had released his attachment to laughter and, as such, was silently amused by Katie’s joke. At first, he dreaded the loss of laughter, but he could no longer adequately complete the action. Whenever he found something amusing, he fought—competitors unknown—to unleash the amount laughter deemed appropriate for the scenario. Sometimes, he would laugh too much; other times, not enough. Eventually, he skipped the ritual altogether, considering it trivial and unnecessary. No longer did he giggle, chuckle, snicker, chortle, gurgle, snigger, titter, laugh, guffaw, or smile. Katie knew of his predicament and assumed all of her jokes were effective. Tyler never informed her otherwise.
“I think I like being a Tyler.”
“Is this going to get all touchy-feely?”
“Only if your mom is involved.”
Katie reached over to shove him, mockingly, but she went through his translucent form and collided with the soft grass beneath her. There, she lay upon her back, looking longingly into the heavens, while he hovered over her like a raincloud that never delivered its promise of rain. She started to drift away, into a dream, allowing her eyes to flicker until they eventually shut. Had it gotten so late? In an instant, the sky turned black, blacker than Tyler’s skin, blacker than cold darkness of the black holes in the black and distant universe called space. Across the landscape, stars had been sprinkled by the benevolent hand of an omniscient God. They were God’s glitter, and Tyler knew them all by name. They were the Saints, each and every star, and he was the chief sinner among them, the asteroid tearing through the galaxy with complete disregard of what was in its wake. All things belonged in God’s arts and crafts project. Each person, each tree, each creature, each pest, each blade of grass and grain of sand served some purpose in the scrapbook of existence. Some things acted as glue, and some were stickers. Tyler was a pair of scissors. He had always been a pair of scissors.
From his position, he could see down her shirt, and he tried—somewhat half-heartedly—to avert his gaze. Soon, she started to fidget, playfully bantering in a dream, and he wanted to be at her side or in her dream or in the palm of her hand, any place where he could be close to her, close as humans are close. The way the moon illuminated her face inspired him, both poetically and carnally. Emotions piled in his gut. He did not understand them, but he knew that none of them had a spiritual origin. They were primal in nature, rejected by the saints and by the angels. The devils encouraged them, and even they feared them. Hadn’t he done this before and didn’t it bear a different name then? He believed they called it puberty, and he remembered the experience—the hodgepodge of sensations, the strange bodily functions and the strange emotions that accompanied them. Why, then, did they all return? And now of all times … they had their place on earth, but in the heavens, he was immune. Or so he thought.
He began to hate himself, began to wish he could die again. It was as though someone had violated his friend, his best friend, and he could no longer tolerate the face of the perpetrator. Only, he was the perpetrator. And the perpetrator’s face was his face, and no one escaped his own face. The laws of physics did not allow it, even in heaven. He tried to get away, tried to write it off as grade school hormones. Yet, even alive, he should have outgrown those. Didn’t they say that in health class?
This lay beyond the realm of a “G thang.” This was something without a name, inherent in the most evil of sinners. The poets, the hip-hop poets, had written about such emotions—about girls in bikinis dancing atop Bentleys and Lamborghinis—yet even they shied away from the thoughts circling through Tyler’s head. No, he could not consult Jay-Z for a number of reasons; in fact, Jay-Z would have pitied him. He could not consult his father. He could not consult his mother. He could not consult a counselor. He had only his gut, and his gut was preoccupied.
There once was a time when he simply was. Now, he simply wasn’t. Wasn’t an angel, wasn’t a saint, wasn’t a sinner, wasn’t a demon, wasn’t a star, wasn’t an asteroid, wasn’t alive, wasn’t dead. He lingered between. Between all things.
Eventually, she awoke and departed from him, but the emotions did not follow suit. They harbored in his being, taking refuge in his clasped lips, festering in his wounds. He took them with him to heaven. In a matter of time, they affected his vision, tainting all that was good. The streets of gold bore a thick coat of muck and were lined with dilapidated mansions and prostitutes and pimps and homeless men with carts full of aluminum and junkyards and pawn shops and rats and spiders and snakes, oh my! Heaven looked eerily similar to Gotham City, but he was Batman and he was far less effective. Batman fought the evil; Tyler wallowed in it as a pig wallowed in its feces. He could taste it, and it tasted like lust, which had a faint bitterness for those of you who had never stuck your tongue against the shiny, metallic, physical manifestation of the emotion. The sight, the smell, the sound, the touch of it stuck with him, following him with the obedience of Mary’s Little Lamb, but it was the black sheep—the one you don’t make a fuss about when the big bad wolf drops by to snatch it up. Indeed, you encourage the monster to take it, placing it closer to the edge of the forest so that the monster will take it. Tyler kept pushing it towards the woods with the vain hope that some predator would feast upon it, but in turn the black sheep feasted upon him. It nibbled, but each bite accumulated. Soon, he dissipated into a puddle of stomach acids, swishing around in the intestines of Lucifer bearing the form of a lamb.When the devil finally pissed him out, he landed before Saint Valentine who stood nearest a golden fount, not quite staring at the water and not quite standing either. Heaven was a city, but without all the qualities that made the cities a dangerous place to explore once the clock struck midnight. To put it in terms Tyler understood, heaven was Dallas without the homeless people, the criminals, the one way streets, the rundown bars, the graffiti, the rickety DART rail, or the tacky art in Deep Ellum. It was the beauty of the skyline—the magnitude of the town lit up at night without the people it exposed. Whenever he came across someone, he could not describe his-or-her actions. They resembled earthly behaviors, but they were distinctly not earthly behaviors. Still, Tyler could only look upon them with earthly eyes, so when he saw someone not quite standing, they appeared to be standing, despite the knowledge that they weren’t standing. He had no names for angelic behaviors. They were. He wasn’t.
Tyler grabbed at Saint Valentine’s shoulder, peering into the saint's eyes with a langour that suggested he had lost all passion for his predicament. That it was, and he could do nothing to deter it.
“Is it wrong?”
“Is what wrong?”
“Your thoughts?”“Can’t you read minds?”
“So, is it wrong?”
“Is what wrong?”
“To … lust after someone.”
“Alive or dead?”
“Alive … no dead … no alive … both?”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
“Is either one of them right?”
“So, does it matter?”
“Do you lust?”
“Alive or dead?”
“I’m not entirely sure.”
"If you did, would it be wrong?"
"Would what be wrong?"
Saint Valentine pranced away merrily, not quite skipping and not quite humming. Tyler left with the same downtrodden demeanor with which he approached the saint. He shuffled through heaven, thinking of Katie Sears and her hazel eyes and her brunette hair and her slightly buck teeth and her plump but not rotund face and her pig snort when she found a joke too funny and her pretentious opinion on the Lord of the Rings films and her bizarre affection for the Care Bare franchise and her shapely figure and the way she belittled him when her self-esteem was low. He realized, then, that he loved her. That he wanted to write songs for and about her. He knew, then, that he would steal Gabriel’s harp and smash it to pieces if it made him endearing when she looked his way. That he would conquer an army of seraphim if it meant one kiss. He would stab every cherub in the chest with heart-tipped arrows if it meant a confession of affection.
He understood, then, that of all things, heaven did not allow human love. Furthermore, he understood that the decision was just—the decisions were always just—and as he neared the fiery abyss, he wondered if he would see Tupac.