Matthew comes into the lobby of the theater where the poetry slam is happening, gives his brother a quick pound hello, and then keeps moving. You alright? his brother asks, and Matthew responds by shouting back a Yeah, fine, without looking. The back of his left heel is up as he turns the corner and whips down the hall on his tennis-shoe skates, leaving a flashing red light behind like he’s riding a bike in the dark. He sticks a pack of flyers on the table set up for nonprofit organizations to display promotional materials, pausing for a second to see what else is there. There are two volunteers at the table, and they both smile at him. He can’t be more than three and a half feet tall; he wears his black hair long and straight, down to his shoulders at least. His face is unmarked and young looking, and today Matthew’s wearing a T-shirt to his knees that says Tomorrow Is the Day I Forgot Already in script under a picture of a cartoon dog with a big red nose. He could easily pass for five or six, but next week is his thirteenth birthday.
Matthew lives with his brother, who is ten years older and a college student poet at San Francisco State. They call each other Cuya, or brother, and sometimes Matthew wears the same kind of knit hat his brother wears almost every day in the style of urban hip-hop hippies. Matthew’s sister is another ten years older, in her early thirties, and has an eight-year-old son of her own who outgrew Matthew two years ago. Both of Matthew’s siblings have a different father, and each left his mom’s home by age twelve. His sister opened her door to his older brother, just as his brother did when he was in need, but Matthew is the last, so no one will come live with him. At least that’s what they’re all hoping. They all left for different manifestations of the same reasons. It’s like you’d see on television if you watched enough.
Matthew can play the saxophone, kind of, can beatbox, kind of, likes to write poetry, and thinks that he could pretty much live on his own if it came down to it. His last report card didn’t come in so well, though, and his brother is worried Matthew’s not taking it seriously enough.
When Matthew’s mother left him home alone the first time, she was gone three days before he called his sister asking her to come over with some food. He is stubborn and determined and he swears he’s tough, but six-year-olds have a hard time cooking dinner and knowing on their own when is the right time to go to bed. It is not a pretty story, but he’s a gorgeous child. If he were six, he’d be perfect. As it is, he’s so cute you forget he’s in eighth grade and is the shortest kid by far in his school, which has lots of short kids. But he’s the shortest and he’s alienated often, and it’s hard sometimes to even imagine him skating down those hallways. Next year brings high school, and it might only get worse.
Cuya says that Matthew’s a warrior. He says you can tell Matthew is a warrior by the way he walks, and by the way he uses the word love. If you saw Matthew, you’d want to hold and hug him and swing him in the air like you do with your favorite niece or nephew. But you don’t, even though he seems shorter today than usual. Matthew comes back on his shoe-skates, this time putting in his brother’s hand a hand-drawn flyer that announces the poetry reading he’s organized at his school for his birthday.
Are you going to read? his brother asks.
No, Cuya, Matthew says in his soft, high-pitched voice. I don’t like to show off. But I’m helping to put it together, you know? Yes, Matthew, his brother says, I do. And then brothers pound fists again, up, down, both sides. For a second, the knuckles of each of their hands touch, and then, just as quickly, Matthew’s gone, out the door, down the street.