Photos of Men

by John Pruitt

Again last week, a yellowing, dog-eared, underlined copy of Rubyfruit Jungle appeared in my mailbox, so I warily added it to the tower of gay fiction that a black-gloved hand has clandestinely bestowed to me without a note over the past year. I initially felt apprehensive, then worried that someone delivered these personal effects as a precursor to a suicide attempt. Perhaps someone simply cleaned house and donated this collection to a man who would obviously love it.

I less often wonder who’s so interested in my literacy and cultural awareness, although I’m certainly grateful. I’ve looked unsuccessfully in their cryptic notes for a clue, trying to lift meaning from circled words in The City and the Pillar, the scrawled phone number without an area code inside the front cover of The Price of Salt, a receipt from a Walden Books in Ohio marking a page in Tales of the City, the break in the spine where the reader focused the most attention in Capote’s short stories.

Instead, I credit the men in the grainy photos I found in a decrepit box on an upper shelf in my basement storage room. Stained and warped by decades of humidity, this box houses groups of men from further decades past welcoming me into their space. They beam at me through the lens of a Polaroid or Kodak Pocket Instamatic with a blinding flash cube, tracing auras around red checkered hip-huggers and tinted round glasses chatting with hairy chests, thick mustaches, high black turtlenecks and patched jeans, long wavy hair and sideburns sharing a laugh with army jackets, afros, and scraggly beards, entwining fingers and lighting cigarettes, sipping from cans of Busch beer, silhouettes snug at the waist and loose at the ankles.

They’re the sort of men who would leave books for me, interesting men, men whose fingerprints I cover with my own. Through these novels I sink into their world before Stonewall, before condoms, before AIDS. They all enjoy their present but recall their own pasts, a time before penicillin, before monogamy.

These men read, spoke, and kept journals within these pages and pictures just for me, an audience who lives in their marginalia. These men anticipated me at least fifty years in their future, their offspring who drafts what will decades later be labeled representative of early twenty-first-century gay writing, perhaps alongside others in a small press anthology or chapbook sold in indie bookstores, more likely on commercial websites. A graduate student might tackle my language in a thesis on new critical orthodoxies. A desperate creative writing student will certainly plagiarize me.

I write now for my own descendents who will download from my abandoned blog discarded drafts detailing the night I endured my first piercing, or my interviews with gay men who’d maneuvered through the age of McCarthy, or my fainting during middle school sex ed class. “I love that old school writing,” they’ll admit. “I’ve heard life was simpler then.”

I write for them, future gay readers with a vintage James Baldwin on Kindle, scratched over with my stylus and archived in the cloud for them to find.

John Pruitt (he/him/his) teaches writing and American literature in southern Wisconsin. He’s most recently published nonfiction in ImageOutWrite.