A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 7

After leaving Evelyn's and some of the best food I'd eaten, I got the rest of Carlton's story. While I couldn't have gone down the road he went down, but I could see how he was where he was.

"I was a queer for Chase, but if I am queer, it began and ended with him. I've never been with anyone the way I was with him."

"It takes two to tango," I said. "He took every step with you. He may have outgrown his desire for boys, but he knew he liked what you two did together, every bit as much as you did, and you can bet he knows it, too."

"You think so?"

"I'm sure of it. Guys like him are selfish pricks. If you do what they want, the way they want you to, they'll play along, like they're playing along, but let someone question their manliness, and they'll become the most homophobic assholes around. They had nothing to do with what you were doing. Their dicks just happened to be there, while they weren't paying attention. They'll throw you under the bus, and go into a tizzy if someone catches them at it. They believe, if they point at you and say that you did it, no one will notice their part in it."

Carlton laughed.

"You've been through this?" he asked. "Someone saying they aren't doing what they're doing."

"Guys want what they want, Carlton. Some can't face the fact they enjoy having a boy take care of their needs. No matter what they're doing with other boys, they'll claim they didn't do it. You did it all, except they keep coming back for more."

"I still think of Chase now and then," he said.

"You were young, horny, and available. In spite of what we are told about sex, and not having it, there is far more sex going on than anyone is willing to own up to. Our ancestors were Puritans, and ain't nobody that pure," I said.

Carlton laughed.

"There was an old biddy in every town, way back when, who counted the days between when a couple was married and when the first child was born. You might wonder, why would someone waste their time keeping track of such a thing, and the answer is, to bring the wrath of God down on any couple whose child was born early, and if the birth came early, the child was a bastard, and he was shamed if he failed to take the proper time to get born. These people are as evil as those God fearing folk that burned those witches. You can bet, any women accused of witchcraft was sleeping with the accusers husband," I said. "Some people live to humiliate other people. It's a sad and destructive thing they do."

"I know how destructive humiliation can be. It all but destroyed me, knowing what my father thought of me. I knew why he did what he did, but it didn't make how it made me feel any easier."

"No, humiliation is about the worst thing you can do to someone," I said. "There's no way to undo it, once it's done."

"Do I hear the voice of experience speaking," Carlton said.

"It isn't worth going into. That part of my life is over, but you could say, I have some experience with being humiliated."

"I feel better telling someone about Chase. I've kept that secret for a long time. I feel better for telling someone who has some understanding of my experience. You've given this a lot of thought."

"I understand your feelings because I'm gay. In that respect, we are similar. Did you go to Catholic school?" I asked.

"No, my father thought about it, because it would have protected me, but it would have limited me. I was the one to be soaked in the American culture. I'd learn the language, and I'd explain the system to my father. In Catholic school, I would have received a very different education. I wouldn't have met Chase at all. I probably wouldn't have played ball."

"A game you loved playing," I said.

"It's as American as apple pie," he said. "My life wasn't easy for the first few years. I was a foreigner, a colored boy, a different sort of kid from the majority of kids in public school. Then, Mama died, and my aunt talked me into going out for baseball that year. I was good at it, and she stayed with us, after Mama died," Carlton said.

"She kept house and cooked, trying to keep some normalcy in a house with two men in it. After I made the team, she came to my games. When I got a hit, or drove in a run, I could hear her calling my name. I loved baseball," he said, pensively.

That said, we have two options. I can take you back to where I found you, or we can go to my place, and wait for your friend to call. It would be a lot more comfortable at my place, and you are safe. I asked you to dinner, and we went to dinner. Now, I'm asking you to come up to my place, to wait for your friend's call, and nothing but wait for your friend's call, and talk, and you can tell me your story."

"Your place sounds fine to me," I said, trusting Carlton, though I didn't know why I would trust a total stranger, just because he took me to dinner, but I did trust him. Trust wasn't my best thing.

My ears popped as the elevator soared into the heights of New York City. We went from the lobby to the 37th floor in about five seconds. There was a rush, when the elevator took off, and a sudden stop, once we reached Carlton's floor.

His apartment was half way down on the left side of the hallway. When he opened the door, I could see buildings for as far as I could see. The windows straight ahead of us, gave me a view of New York City that took my breath away.

I couldn't imagine living so high off the ground. I walked to the windows and I looked down first, which was a rush, and then I looked beyond the beyond. I had never been so high, anywhere that had a hundred buildings that went as high as we were, or higher.

"Look for the last building you see on the skyline," Carlton said. "Over to the right. See the blackness beyond there?"

"Yes, everything seems to stop there," I said.

"That's the Atlantic Ocean. Some nights you can see the big boats coming into the Hudson River. I have a telescope in the other room. It offers a closeup view of whatever you want to see," he said.

We walked to the right, where there was a sitting room. There was a television, stereo, and some dolls, seated on a sofa.

"There's nothing moving right now, but you can get a closeup of the last building on the horizon. You can see some stars, but the city lights make what's in the sky hard to see."

I looked through the telescope, but I preferred the view I got with the naked eye. I'd never seen so much packed into such a small space. I'd lived my life with my feet firmly planted on terra firma. It was almost impossible to take it all in.

"Soda?" Carlton asked.

"Root beer?" I asked.

"Dr. Pepper," he said.


"Coke it is," he said, leaving me in the living room.

I sat on the sofa, closest to the windows. I was captivated by New York's skyline.

Carlton handed me a bottle of Coke. He held a bottle of beer. I didn't recognize it. He assumed I didn't drink, because I didn't drink the wine, and I'd need to drive later, so I wouldn't drink anything alcoholic.

"Your turn," he said, seated in a recliner facing where I sat. "You've given me some interesting hints. How'd you get here?"

"As I said, it's a long story. It isn't pretty. It's so not pretty, I don't like thinking about it. I left it behind me."

"Give me the short version. You'll feel better, after you talk about it. I feel better, after talking about Chase," he said. "I've held that inside me for most of my life."

"For most of my life, isn't as long as for most of yours. The short version is, I was a bed-wetter. My brother and I both wet the bed. We weren't the occasional, once in a while bed-wetter, we wet the bed every night. My parents decided we were doing it to spite them. So we caught hell for every day of our lives. It was talked about in front of family and friends. A day didn't go by, when we weren't taken to task for wetting the bed the night before," I said, drinking some Coke.

"They thought you did it on purpose? Why would they think that?" Carlton asked. "Who in the world would wet themselves on purpose. It makes no sense."

"When you're a kid, and your parents tell you something, you're going to believe it. I didn't know why I wet the bed. If my brother knew why, he was keeping it to himself. Every morning, before my father went to work, he came to our room to check to see if we were wet. We always were, and he'd proceed to yank us out of bed, beat us, strip us naked, and make us stand in front of the toilet to 'Make water.' I rarely had to pee, I'd already peed the bed."

"That's crazy," Carlton blurted.

"Once he changed the sheets, put us in fresh pajamas, we were put back in bed," I said. "It wasn't daylight yet. Being yanked out of bed, while still sleeping, did disturb me for a time."

"It doesn't make any sense. Didn't they know there is a biological component in boys, that keeps them from waking up, when they've got to pee in the middle of the night?"

"I don't know what they knew, and they saw no reason to discuss it with me. They called us bad, lazy, and defiant. I knew that meant I was pretty hopeless, because I didn't know what it meant, except I was pretty bad. Each evening, at the dinner table, we were read the riot act. That I could depend on."

"That's insane. How could they treat their kids that way? If I raised my voice to one of my girls, my wife would take a skillet to my head. If I ever touched one of them in anger, she'd send me flying out over the balcony to allow me to think about it for all thirty-seven floors," Carlton said. "You don't beat children if you want them to grow up to be happy adults."

"You don't beat children," I said.

Carlton leaned forward, placing his hands on his knees.

"By the time I was seven or eight, I began developing ways of avoiding the constant yelling and punishment. I learned how to disappear inside myself. I was there, but I wasn't there. Since the scene kept repeating itself, over and over again, I knew the script. I could disappear inside. When I heard certain words, I knew it was over, and I came back. It's how I avoided punishment. At night, when I was yanked from my bed," I said.

And Carlton found himself outraged.

"Didn't they know how damaging that is, yanking a sleeping child out of bed," he said, with no understanding for what I was describing.

"I didn't wake up. I'd be standing there, taking the punishment, but I was sleeping. I responded when he told me what to do, and I slept while standing in front of the toilet, and I was asleep when he tossed me back in bed. I simply didn't wake up any longer, and so my brother got it, and I escaped it."

"I don't want to hear anymore. That makes me sick, Rick. How could your parents treat their children that way?" He asked.

"They believed we did it on purpose. When our childhood comes up, my mother still insists we wet the bed on purpose, and they were duty bound to force us to obey them, because you can't allow children to be defiant, after they told us to stop wetting the bed," I said.

"That's crazy," Carlton said. "Even crazy people learn something can't be true, after it repeats itself so often. They should have figured out they were wrong, and it wasn't defiance, but biology causing it."

"One would think. Anyway, that's how I got into the 8th grade without knowing how to read," I said. "While disappearing inside myself was a nifty trick at the house, it wasn't so cool at school. I could slip right into escaping a boring classroom as fast as you could say, 'Jack Robinson,'" I said.

"How did the teachers handle that?" He asked.

"'Charles could do better, if he paid attention in class,'" I said.

"Charles?" Carlton asked.

"I'm Charles Richard. I got Rick from the movie Casablanca . At some point in the movie, Humphrey Bogart signs someone's chit, and the camera shows him signing Richard Blaine. His club was Rick's, and after that, when I met someone new, I was Rick."

"One of my favorite movies," Carlton said.

"The movie was made in ten days. They only had ten days, because Bogart was due to begin making, The Maltese Falcon . The movie that made Bogart a star. Whether or not his becoming a star made Casablanca a block buster hit, no one can be sure, but everything Bogart touched, turned to gold, once he made The Maltese Falcon ."

"Rick suits you," Carlton said.

"I thought so, too," I said. "It was a name I picked for myself. It was the start of me having an identity of my own."

"You were going to tell me the story behind how it was you learned to read, and to find a way you could make it in a world you were ill-prepared to face," Carlton said. "I don't want to hear anymore about your parents. I want to hear about what happened to create the young man I'm so smitten with. You are no ordinary, young man."

"As I said, mostly I put one foot in front of the other. What was created..., or what was destroyed, by the childhood, which was no childhood at all, that I had, I can't say. I am what I am. I've gotten here on my own. With the help of Tommy, and a couple of teachers, and blind dumb luck. Here I am."

"If I'd been treated the way you were treated, I wouldn't be able to sit up and take nourishment," Carlton said. "I can't imagine anyone surviving what you've endured."

"I'm not saying, I had the worst childhood ever. I know there are far meaner, far more violent, and malevolent parents than mine. Some children don't live through it. For some reason, I did. My parents were in charge. Whatever they dished out, I endured. Somehow, I grew up. The simple truth is, I was born the year I turned 12. The only reason I'm alive, is because of one friend and two very innovative teachers, who saved my life. It's the only reason I'm here."

Carlton sat on the edge of his chair, watching my face. I sipped from my Coke. The apartment was silent, and the city stretched out as far as my eyes could see. I began to move back in time, to an event that seemed illogical, not to mention impossible. My fear was, I'd end up a vegetable, or worse. I feared I'd become my parents.

I was born at 12, but someone was laying the groundwork for my birth, in sixth grade. Mrs. Foster, a woman with purple hair, was my sixth grade teacher. When she learned that I wasn't following along in the text book, she moved my chair to in front of her desk.

Before 6th grade, I always took the last seat in the last row of a classroom, on the first day of class. Usually, the seating arrangement was put on paper, after the students all took their seats. If there were any talkers, they were quickly separated, as for kids not paying attention, that was where I fit in, and it didn't seem to be covered.

I could sit in the rear of the classroom, look outside, and slowly drift away. I was alert to my name, and I was alert to the bell. Nothing else mattered much in elementary school, until Mrs. Foster broke with the past.

Teachers had two reactions to me, they did their best to get me to participate in classroom lessons for maybe a week or two, and once I didn't respond, they gave up. A few teachers simply did what they did and ignored me. If I weren't interested, they weren't.

Mrs. Foster didn't lecture me. She didn't try to get me to stay up with the class. Mostly, she spent a lot of time turning the pages in the textbook in front of me. I was never on the right page, and she thought if she got me on the right page, one day I might catch on, but I didn't.

On the last day of school, Mrs. Foster asked me to stay after class, which I did. It was the last day of school, and I couldn't wait to get free of the place. I had a few surprises coming.

"Next year, Charles, you'll be going to junior high school. It will be a lot different. You'll have a lot of teachers, and a lot of classes. If you listen, and do what you're told, you'll be OK," she said, as if this were important to her. "You can go now."

What she was actually telling me, I was graduating from elementary school with the other kids. I'd been passed along every year, to the next year, and the year after that. I was waiting to be failed by one teacher or another, but I hadn't been failed yet. I was sure I wouldn't be able to cut it in junior high school. Once I failed, I didn't know what came next. Teachers knew I was stupid, but they didn't know what to do about it.

A week after graduating from elementary school, I left the house one morning just before nine. I had my summer laid out in front of me. I was going to do the one thing that I was good at, roam. There were construction sites galore in the growing communities that were spreading out from the DC line, a mile away.

I went straight up Iverson St., heading for the strip mall and new housing projects abounded. When I got to my elementary school, the one I no longer attended, there was a sign over top of the front doors:

Open House

What was an open house? My curiosity got the best of me, and I did something I'd never done before, I went to school when I didn't have to be there. I opened the unlocked front door, went down the empty hallway, following the signs to the open house, which took me to the auditorium.

There was no hint that fate awaited me just inside that door. I didn't have a clue that destiny was about to meet me. I didn't know what those words meant, and if I did, they'd mean nothing to me.

I swung the door open and there was bedlam inside. A dozen people were engaged in putting booths together. As I stepped inside, there was Vacation Bible School, Arts & Crafts, Camp Fire Girls, and almost a dozen things any halfway normal child would want to do.

Anything to do with being around other people, even other kids, was something I had no interest in. I turned around and was about to make my getaway, when a little man in a charcoal gray suit said, 'Sink the ball and win a prize.'

He was stationed just inside the double doors, and off to the left about five feet. The man held what I recognized as a putter. I'd seen Arnold Palmer employing one on the Wide World of Sports.

The man held out the club and said, 'Sink the ball. Win a prize.'

The man was an adult. He had spoken to me. I knew better than to ignore any adult who spoke to me. I was duty bound to respond to him, if I knew what was good for me, and I did, so I walked over.

"Here, I'll show you," he said, leaning to place his one golf ball on a little rubber tee.

I'd seen miniature golf courses spring up around the area. His, was a single golf hole. It was made of artificial grass and ran for maybe twelve feet. There was a four inch rise, and the top spread out, impersonating a green on a golf course. The top was maybe six feet by six feet, and the hole was set perfectly in the center.

I was standing next to the man, as we looked down at the tee and the golf ball. He spoke to me, but he shouldn't have wasted his time. I watched but I didn't listen, and he swung the club back, gave the ball a good tap, and the ball ran the twelve feet, until it ran up the four inch rise, and it rolled right up to the lip of the cup and stopped.

"Here," he said, handing me the putter.

He walked after the ball, brought it back, placing it on the tee.

"Sink the ball and win a prize," he said.

I drew the club back and whack, I gave that sucker a good swat. The ball took off like a shot, and so did the man in the charcoal gray suit. As the ball struck the wall behind the hole, it careened into the middle of the auditorium, with the man in pursuit. As the little ball was about to disappear under the under construction booths, the man went into a slide. Just as the ball was about to disappear, he intercepted it.

Pretty nifty slide, I thought. Now, he's going to come back to tell me what a dope I was for running him all over the auditorium. I knew the routine. He'd yell for a few minutes, and then he'd tell me to take a hike, which is what I was doing, in the first place.

I braced myself as the man came toward me, brushing the dust off his pants from that most excellent slide he made to get the ball.

He wasn't yelling.

I opened my eyes. He was placing the ball back on the tee. He didn't look the least bit perturbed by being run all over the auditorium. He brushed his pants some more.

"Give me the putter," he said. "I'm going to show you again. I want you to watch me closely, and listen to what I'm saying. You don't need to hit it very far. It's only fourteen feet to the cup. You simply need to tap it. Now, I want you to watch me," he said.

He may as well have been talking to the man in the moon. I was paying about as much attention as he was, but this wasn't just an ordinary man, and he recognized something he'd seen before.

"Are you paying attention?" He asked.

"Sure," I said, oblivious.

This man was about to separate himself from everyone else I'd encountered. He had some idea of what to do with a boy who had no talent for anything but doing the wrong thing. He'd seen that vacant look before.

He took my arm in his powerful hand.

He was strong for a small man.

He shook me lightly.

"I want you to pay attention," he said.

He shook me again.

"Are you paying attention?" He asked.

I was and I said so. I actually understood what he was telling me to do.

"Now, watch," he said. "I measure the distance to the cup with my eyes. I look back at the ball, at the cup, back to the ball, and I tap the ball. It's not necessary to hit it hard."

He struck the ball, and it rolled the twelve feet to the rise, ran up the rise, and the ball rolled to a stop a single turn from dropping in the cup.

"Now, you do it," he said, handing me the club, before he went to retrieve the ball.

Not only had I watched, but when I looked down at the golf ball, I saw him doing the same thing in my mind. I discovered a taping system in my brain. I not only saw him getting ready to hit the ball, and I watched him hit it, and I saw the ball roll up to the cup.

Then, I realized that he hadn't quite hit it hard enough. No I wasn't going to draw back and smack that sucker again, but I would apply a tiny bit more force to my swing, and that's what I did.

The ball ran down the twelve feet of fake green grass, hit the rise, went up, and it rolled right up to the cup, and it dropped in. Plop.

"You did it," he yelled. "You got a hole in one. You win a prize."

Not only did he get excited, he jumped up and down, patted my back, and continued telling me what a fine job I'd done.

"You can go over to the table and pick a prize," he said. "You did it. You win a prize."

I'd rarely seen anyone get so excited over anything. I had no idea what it was, but I knew immediately, I liked it. Whatever was going on, I wanted more of the same.

I picked a prize that was like things you might find in the kitchen drawer. I didn't care about the prize. What I wanted was for him to get excited by what I did.

"Can I play again?" I asked.

There was no way he knew what a mistake it was to tell me, 'You can putt as often as you like, but if someone else comes in and wants to try, you'll need to let them try."

Sounded like a deal to me.

As I went back to putt the ball again, I noticed that by thinking about what the man showed me, I could once again see it clearly in my mind. The way he looked at the ball, the hole, the ball, and then tapped the ball. By tapping it a slight bit harder than he did, the ball ran up, up, up, onto the second level, rolling up to the cup, and plop.

This time he danced a little dance, patted my back, told me I'd done it again, and we went through the same ritual of me picking out one of those useless prizes on the table with a dozen such doodads.

While I'm sure the man didn't believe his eyes, because I had trouble believing it, but I did putt the ball, and it did go in the hole.

I couldn't miss.

I owned that golf hole.

It was my day.

The ball had eyes.

And I had all the man's prizes.

"You've got to go now. You've won all the prizes," he finally said, sounding a little miffed, because I'd sent him to the showers early.

I'd have stayed and kept putting that ball, if he'd let me. He could have his prizes. I didn't want them. I wanted to feel the way he made me feel, every time I succeeded at sinking that golf ball.

I'd never succeeded at anything before. I'd never been praised, had my back patted, or been told what a fine job I'd done.

He wasn't so mad that he didn't give me the box he brought the prizes in, and he opened the door to send me on the way.

I didn't know how to tell him what I wanted. I never asked for anything. I never thought I'd get anything. I knew how bad and pathetic I was. I knew I was a disappointment to my parents, but I'd have loved to have stayed there and kept hitting that little ball.

It was one of those events that pops up, out of the blue, and when it's over, the memory of it begins to fade, the joy it furnished becomes less, and the exhilaration gives way to reality, the farther from the event I got.

Big whoops. I could putt a golf ball.

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