please please please please please keep smiling
You are five years old and you have just completed one-fourth of kindergarten. You don’t know what one-fourth is yet, since you haven’t learned fractions, but you know what this means in practical terms: report card day. When you’re a big kid, as you know you are, your teacher sends a report card home to say how you’re doing in school. It comes in a rough yellow- brown sleeve, and the paper inside, which you can see and feel through a row of small round holes in the envelope, is pale pink and thin like a butterfly’s wing. You notice that the envelope is more like a card than the card is, and the part called the card is more like tissue paper, like the kind that you once cut and crumpled to make a bouquet of colorful flowers with pipe cleaners for stems. You don’t say anything about this to your teacher, or to anyone, you just think about it.
Boarding the bus, you carry your bubble gum-colored report card inside its mustard- colored sleeve inside your monkey-shaped backpack. You think about a monkey eating a bubble gum and mustard sandwich and you smile. You know the report card is precious cargo, and you feel a sense of importance as you rumble down the road, bouncing along on the green vinyl seat next to your classmate Robbie. Robbie has a streak of chocolate alongside his mouth, and a booger dangling from his nose. You wonder if these will be mentioned on his report card. Quickly, you check your own nose for boogers, feel around your mouth for stickiness. Finding neither, you feel relieved.
When the bus reaches your stop, you walk up the aisle and bunny-hop down the stairs. Your mom is waiting, and she holds your hand as you walk down your street, toward your house, where she will read your report card and hopefully tell you what it says. You can read a little, but not cursive, and not many words, so you’ll only be able to read it yourself if the teacher printed her comments and if she used small words like “cat” and “sat.” You doubt that this will be the case. When you get to your house, you take off your shoes and tell your mom that today is report card day. Your mom says she knows, and you wonder how she knows, and you also wonder what else she knows about school that you haven’t told her, and then you wonder if maybe she and your teacher, Miss Graves, talk on the phone late at night the same way your mom talks to your Aunt Kim, holding a glass of wine and a cigarette and laughing and crying and yelling.
You pull the report card from your backpack, still inside its envelope. You hand it to your mom and ask her to please tell you what it says. She opens it, looks at it for a while, and then smiles really big. She says, “Honey, I’m so proud of you!” and she gives you a big hug. Then she tells you that your teacher said you are “a pleasure to have in class,” which she says is good, and that you are “always well behaved” and “play well with others,” which you already know are good. You can see that your mom is happy and it’s because of you. That makes you happy, too. It makes you feel warm and fuzzy like you’re snuggled in a sleeping bag watching cartoons and eating cereal, which is the best feeling there is. It’s so much better than when your mom is sad or angry, and you can feel the distance and the difference between the two like the difference between the playground and the principal’s office. Your mom says that when your dad gets home he’ll have a surprise for you. You can’t wait.
When your dad gets home, he brings your surprise and it’s a little ice cream cake, like the one you got on your birthday only smaller. Your dad is happy, too, and he smiles and gives you a great big hug just like your mom did. They’re both so happy and so proud of you and you did a great job and you feel so good and Miss Graves thinks you’re a super student and they’re all smiling at you and you love that feeling, and you want to keep that feeling, you want to hold it forever, you want to keep it so bad that you need it, you need to have them smiling at you forever, so you have to be really really good, you have to play nicely and you have to be a pleasure in class and you have to get the right answers on spelling quizzes and you have to do the best drawings and you have to do everything really good, and I mean everything, so your mom and dad and Miss Graves will keep smiling and you’ll feel warm and fuzzy like you’re swinging on your favorite swing eating the clear gummy bears which are the best because they taste like pineapples and if your mom and dad and Miss Graves weren’t smiling, if they weren’t happy, if they were sad or mad, if they were frowning or yelling or crying, you would not be okay, you would lose the happy feeling of all the people smiling at you, and you’d be scared because you wouldn’t know what to do, so you don’t want to lose that feeling, you really really really don’t, and you think, “Keep smiling at me, please, don’t be sad or mad anymore, I’ll do anything, please, I’ll be so so so good, I’ll do everything right, always, and never make mistakes, I promise, I swear, cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye, just keep smiling at me, just keep smiling, just please, please, please, please, please keep smiling.”
matt tompkins has stories published or forthcoming in Atticus Review, H_NGM_N, Post Road, and other journals. You can find more of Matt’s writing by visiting his website, needsrevision.com. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, daughter, and cat.