A Happy Childhood

BY WILLIAM MATTHEWS

Babies do not want to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles. 
Dr. Johnson 

No one keeps a secret so well as a child 
Victor Hugo

My mother stands at the screen door, laughing.   
“Out out damn Spot,” she commands our silly dog.   
I wonder what this means. I rise into adult air

like a hollyhock, I’m so proud to be loved   
like this. The air is tight to my nervous body.
I use new clothes and shoes the way the corn-studded   

soil around here uses nitrogen, giddily.
Ohio, Ohio, Ohio. Often I sing
to myself all day like a fieldful of August   

insects, just things I whisper, really,
a trance in sneakers. I’m learning
to read from my mother and soon I’ll go to school,

I hate it when anyone dies or leaves and the air                  
goes slack around my body and I have to hug myself,
a cloud, an imaginary friend, the stream in the road-

side park. I love to be called for dinner.   
Spot goes out and I go in and the lights
in the kitchen go on and the dark,

which also has a body like a cloud’s,
leans lightly against the house. Tomorrow
I’ll find the sweatstains it left, little grey smudges.

.       .       .

       Here’s a sky no higher than a streetlamp,
and a stack of morning papers cinched by wire.   
It’s 4:00 A.M. A stout dog, vaguely beagle,   

minces over the dry, fresh-fallen snow;
and here’s our sleep-sodden paperboy   
with his pliers, his bike, his matronly dog,   

his unclouding face set for paper route
like an alarm clock. Here’s a memory
in the making, for this could be the morning   

he doesn’t come home and his parents   
two hours later drive his route until
they find him asleep, propped against a streetlamp,

his papers all delivered and his dirty paper-
satchel slack, like an emptied lung,
and he blur-faced and iconic in the morning

air rinsing itself a paler and paler blue
through which a last few dandruff-flecks   
of snow meander casually down.   

The dog squeaks in out of the dark,
snuffling me too me too. And here he goes   
home to memory, and to hot chocolate

on which no crinkled skin forms like infant ice,
and to the long and ordinary day,
school, two triumphs and one severe

humiliation on the playground, the past
already growing its scabs, the busride home,
dinner, and evening leading to sleep

like the slide that will spill him out, come June,   
into the eye-reddening chlorine waters   
of the municipal pool. Here he goes to bed.

Kiss. Kiss. Teeth. Prayers. Dark. Dark.   
Here the dog lies down by his bed,   
and sighs and farts. Will he always be

this skinny, chicken-bones?   
He’ll remember like a prayer
how his mother made breakfast for him

every morning before he trudged out   
to snip the papers free. Just as   
his mother will remember she felt

guilty never to wake up with him   
to give him breakfast. It was Cream
of Wheat they always or never had together.


It turns out you are the story of your childhood   
and you’re under constant revision,   
like a lonely folktale whose invisible folks

are all the selves you’ve been, lifelong,   
shadows in fog, grey glimmers at dusk.   
And each of these selves had a childhood

it traded for love and grudged to give away,   
now lost irretrievably, in storage   
like a set of dishes from which no food,

no Cream of Wheat, no rabbit in mustard   
sauce, nor even a single raspberry,   
can be eaten until the afterlife,

which is only childhood in its last   
disguise, all radiance or all humiliation,   
and so it is forfeit a final time.

In fact it was awful, you think, or why   
should the piecework of grief be endless?   
Only because death is, and likewise loss,

which is not awful, but only breathtaking.   
There’s no truth about your childhood,   
though there’s a story, yours to tend,

like a fire or garden. Make it a good one,   
since you’ll have to live it out, and all
its revisions, so long as you all shall live,

for they shall be gathered to your deathbed,   
and they’ll have known to what you and they
would come, and this one time they’ll weep for you.


The map in the shopping center has an X
signed “you are here.” A dream is like that.   
In a dream you are never eighty, though   

you may risk death by other means:
you’re on a ledge and memory calls you   
to jump, but a deft cop talks you in

to a small, bright room, and snickers.
And in a dream, you’re everyone somewhat,   
but not wholly. I think I know how that

works: for twenty-one years I had a father   
and then I became a father, replacing him   
but not really. Soon my sons will be fathers.

Surely, that’s what middle-aged means,   
being father and son to sons and father.   
That a male has only one mother is another

story, told wherever men weep wholly.   
Though nobody’s replaced. In one dream   
I’m leading a rope of children to safety,

through a snowy farm. The farmer comes out   
and I have to throw snowballs well to him   
so we may pass. Even dreaming, I know

he’s my father, at ease in his catcher’s   
squat, and that the dream has revived   
to us both an old unspoken fantasy:

we’re a battery. I’m young, I’m brash,   
I don’t know how to pitch but I can   
throw a lamb chop past a wolf. And he

can handle pitchers and control a game.   
I look to him for a sign. I’d nod
for anything. The damn thing is hard to grip

without seams, and I don’t rely only
on my live, young arm, but throw by all   
the body I can get behind it, and it fluffs

toward him no faster than the snow   
in the dream drifts down. Nothing
takes forever, but I know what the phrase

means. The children grow more cold   
and hungry and cruel to each other
the longer the ball’s in the air, and it begins

to melt. By the time it gets to him we’ll be   
our waking ages, and each of us is himself   
alone, and we all join hands and go.

.       .       .

       Toward dawn, rain explodes on the tin roof   
like popcorn. The pale light is streaked by grey
and that green you see just under the surface

of water, a shimmer more than a color.   
Time to dive back into sleep, as if into   
happiness, that neglected discipline ….

In those sixth-grade book reports
you had to say if the book was optimistic   
or not, and everyone looked at you

the same way: how would he turn out?   
He rolls in his sleep like an otter.   
Uncle Ed has a neck so fat it’s funny,

and on the way to work he pries the cap
off a Pepsi. Damn rain didn’t cool one weary   
thing for long; it’s gonna be a cooker.

The boy sleeps with a thin chain of sweat   
on his upper lip, as if waking itself,   
becoming explicit, were hard work.

Who knows if he’s happy or not?   
A child is all the tools a child has,   
growing up, who makes what he can.
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the way a secret bubbles out of you 

like a rose of jericho in reverse

it shrivels up in the air of your parent’s bedroom

somehow a miracle deflates it before your eyes

you realize you didn’t have to keep something so big

in your heart for so long 

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Try this out

I am seven or nine years old in one of my paintings. I paint myself as a grown man. The painting depicts my brother riding over me on his Haro BMX bicycle. It is not my best painting, but I want to talk about it because it is the kind of situation so unfortunate and funny, I needed to paint it. I remember the tire tread on my stomach. It felt like my stomach was a turning bucket full of water, emptied out. My lungs dump out the air I sucked in moments before closing my eyes in anticipation of my brother’s “cool trick”. Misled, I curl up like an abandoned cicada shell and smell Ivan the black cat’s urine that hangs suspiciously on the dandelion puffs around my face. I am wearing my very red Spiderman t-shirt. The black webbing detail raises up bumpy and weird on my fingers. Who rides over their brother on a bicycle? Has a dozen or so years been generous enough to make that memory funny? I remember feeling proud that my brother had run over me on his bike. I cried obviously, but even now I tell the story. Some sick part of me liked being ridden over, or at least I like that I have endured.
​All my paintings come from scenarios like that. When I am drawing and thinking about my life, I run into memories or scenarios that have what I’d call the right ingredients. The first ingredient is beauty. The way my mother’s arm curls around her head as her other arm lays hilariously over some text from Women’s Health, the lamplight warmer than the night air. Beautiful images of my whole family stampeding in a five kilometer race to honor or grieve for my dead cousin. The song “Red Sails in the Sunset”. The second ingredient is sadness. A crumpled up receipt lying next to the olive oil left from sardines. A room filled with people that look askance to feel observed. A reflection in a car window of my crying face, looking at an ex-lover driving coldly on I-83 away from a very tacky restaurant. Feeling small and stupid next your burly, funny, confident brother. The third and best ingredient is humor or idiocy. An angel flying over a gas station, or an embarrassing erection at homecoming with teenage girls ten feet tall. A stink bug at the dinner table riding in my sister’s little hands. Socks that are not folded right. A girl doing a back-dive. A pine tree shaped and scented car freshener zooming at 55 miles per hour past it’s motionless namesake. If you mix in a reference to art history, such as the Etruscan egg or Egyptian profile, you really have a potent brew for a painting.
​I’m just trying to be honest. I want to say “Here is what life was like”. I don’t think that I want to say in such a paternal tone though. More like the tone someone might use to show an alien why living on Earth is exciting and terrifying at the same time- an honest tone. I want to make a time capsule painting that makes some painter in the future laugh until he cries about the year 2014. “They used to use these things called plastic tableware!”, they might say through laughter to another artist friend. They would laugh until they see something that makes them think about their family, or child-self in a sobering way. Maybe it is the expression on a face or the way hands only sort of touch each other. I want to be the honest painter a professor once noticed in the fast drawings I never thought to show anybody. Quips on life so idiotic and unprocessed they leave you at your knees. She told me something I might as well get tattooed all over my body. “You only embarrass yourself if you never embarrass yourself”. I hope for a lifetime of ultimate embarrassment.

9 notes

You ever get the feeling that people
Are mostly right about you

2 notes