A Happy Childhood - Poem by William Matthews
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 sweat stains it left, little grey smudges.
Here’s a sky no higher than a street lamp,
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 street lamp,
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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