Four of the Matts I know are poets. Beautiful men, each of them. They all have beards. Six are tall and lanky on thin frames. Two of them wear glasses, some contacts. Many are teachers. Most of them are getting older.
Matt’s family moves to the neighborhood when I’m so young I don’t remember them ever not being there. We ride bikes and play on the banks of springs that snake their way down Mt. Sequoyah to join the Illinois River. We peel the bark off mimosa trees and make swords and walking sticks, nunchuks if we steal twine from home. Years later, Matt will try to rob a local bank and will fail, his car slamming into another vehicle in the drive-through lane as he tries to escape, and a cop will shoot him dead through the rear window. In the house where he grows up, there’s a grand piano that makes a clicking sound when Middle ‘C’ is pressed.
Another Matt buys the next round of Yuengling at a place called the Mai Tai Bar in Daytona. Hundreds of teachers have been flown down to Florida to evaluate student papers, and we take the gig because it’s quick money and the Atlantic’s right there for us to throw ourselves into at the end of the day if it gets to be too much. Matt has a black belt in tae kwon do and is rumored to be a speed reader who’s accurate almost to a fault. He’s invited back each year, though, and we want to learn The Way from him, so we ask and he tells us The Secret.
This other Matt is blond and lives across town and plays trombone in band. He makes jokes that get me through Trigonometry, and we decide one year that we're going to put together a jazz four-piece. The first song we learn is a Ray Charles standard and it sounds terrible, but we show up to his house and practice just the same. Someone on the events committee tells us we should play at the next dance, and we make plans that never happen. (I think I still have the sheet music somewhere for "What'd I Say.") Years later, Matt becomes a teacher and marries and lives in Bogota, and I hear from friends when I go back to the Ozarks one winter that he's died—choked to death on a sandwich—and I think of his last moments alone at a sunlit table, motes of dust kicking up around him.
We move one summer, and the day my wife goes into labor in upstate New York, I'm sitting next to a new Matt in orientation, and I tell him my daughter is due any day now, and he asks why the hell I'm here and not there, and he's right.
The year the organization moves the student-essay conference from Daytona to Louisville, black-belt, speed-reader, very tall Matt buys an old Harley one weekend and drives it over from North Carolina, where a bunch of us are already holed up drunk in the hotel. We wake each morning and eat green bananas for breakfast and drink convention-center coffee to work our way through the hangovers.
Another Matt I know loves Prince. He tells me one day that Sign O' the Times is the most important album of the 20th century. Makes a good case for it. We drink summer beers at a bar in Kansas with a friend of his named Matt and watch the newest faculty hire in our department get drunk on the patio and swing on the limb of a tree.
In Louisville, we read hundreds of standardized tests and complain about the shitty paychecks at night over cocktails and cheap, happy-hour appetizers that we turn into entrées, and this newest, sensei-of-The-Way Matt tells us stories of how things used to be as we huddle in close, and that moment right then feels like what happiness is meant to feel like.