Poetry: Matthew Harrison’s “Learning Circles”

Matthew Harrison

Learning Circles

I learned to dance by dropping soap in the shower
and catching it. You should see me cut a line
on the raised floor that flashes beside the roller rink.
A head spin: that’s something I don’t do, but I do noodle.
Windmill. Worm. The Manic Alligator. I learned to roller skate
by sliding in acrylic socks across the polished olive tile floor
in the kitchen at Mom’s house, a silent room of cedar cabinets
with black knots like bruises and brown macramé valances
knitted with sunflowers that remind me of summer
storms. Wheels on my feet never cowed me after that.
I can even cross my legs around the corners of the rink,
if the beat is right. Mom’s gone now. I learned to sit
with one leg crossed over the other like a gentleman,
like my dead grandpa, Mom’s dad, whenever he smoked
Winstons in the patio chair back when my nose couldn’t peck
a peacock’s beak, by falling off my bike and landing upright
in pretzel position. I was practicing the indo: brake against a curb,
rear tire goes up. Hold the pose—gymnastic—hope neighborhood
girls watch. I flipped over, cracked my tailbone and had to crawl
back and forth between the TV and suede couch all November
because we had no remote and Mom worked most days. She left me
a thermos of tomato soup, a pitcher of lime Kool-Aid. I rubbed
Vicks VapoRub on my ass. Clean ice feeling—what coming death
might be like. Tingle up the spine. White sleep. One leg crossed over
the other felt grown-up. The sun recognized my change and withdrew
its claim to youth, tolerant in fall distance. I still do it: right leg
over left. Grandpa did left over right, meaning he was right brained,
if I remember right. Creative type. He whittled miniature people
out of cedar blocks with a fishing knife. Fine shavings piled around
his oxfords, caught on his argyles. I learned to create opportunities
in life by shattering the sliding-glass door at my ex’s apartment
with a hammer. Shards hidden in the carpet. Jagged hole left over.
She wasn’t there. I finished the chicken soft tacos in the fridge
and stole her Lhasa Apso. Ben. Her favorite dead uncle’s name. This
was after Mom gave up the ghost, a phrase we say to give us invisible
relatives once homes echo. I wasn’t in my right mind. I learned
not to grow attached to living things by leaving Ben behind
on the sidewalk of the Piggly Wiggly one night tied with fishing line
from the trunk of my Camaro to the blue smiling horse on the kiddie
carousel that costs a quarter. I had no remorse. I left biscuits for Ben.
I believe a kind-hearted person suffering heartache became his devoted
mom or dad. I see Ben asleep in the cotton mothball-scented lap
of a widow humming Sinatra with her eyes closed while she pretends
to stroke the yellowing hair of the husband that proposed in school
decades ago. I learned to care less about my hair by growing
a ponytail and lopping it off with a machete. I learned to chop unfazed
with a machete by chopping away the garden behind Mom’s house.
I learned to garden by accident, spitting watermelon seeds into tulips
and gardenias in the front yard. The watermelon was fat. We had it
with catfish and cake when I turned eight. Mom guided me to a piñata.
I gripped a Louisville slugger. I learned to swing a bat slugging catfish
I caught by shooting my pump gun into a manmade lake. I learned
to keep a reasonable distance when shooting by shooting a bathtub
that ricocheted the lead BB into my eye. I learned what goes away
will find a way back with bite when I had to wear a black velvet patch
over my left eye. I learned how to shield my eyes when I circled Mom
laid out nothing but a husk of lace and wrinkled skin in her pine casket
and I refused to lean in. I learned to keep circling the scuffed unstable
center with flagrant aloof momentum at the roller rink to machine-gun
drums and berserk guitars and croaking chants and banshee screams
on Death Metal Mondays. I learned to dance by dropping soap in the shower
and catching it. Windmill. Worm. I learned to roller skate by sliding in socks
across the polished olive tile floor of the empty kitchen in a summer storm.
I can even cross my legs around the corners, if the beat is right.

Born in Georgia, Matthew Harrison now teaches and writes in Massachusetts, where he is completing an MFA at UMass-Amherst. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in At Length, Gargoyle, Word Riot, The Common, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. He is a reader for the New England Review and Fiction Collective 2.

Photo credit: chicagoglass.com

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