A Conversation With Carlton

by Rick Beck

Part 14

For me, life had never been better, which scared me. Life had never even been good enough for me to want to hang around, not until the year before. Now, Honor Roll students, star of Mr. Warnock's early CORE class, Mr. Q's boy, and best friend to a mechanical genius, I had a lot to lose. Which made me very careful.

I couldn't get beyond the feeling, it's too good to be true. How long would my good fortune last, and how fast could it fall apart, all my gains lost?

It wasn't easy for me to think positively. I'd never known happiness, and the prospect I had found it, was fleeting. Anything that could be found, could be lost. I knew that, even if I didn't allow myself to think it.

It would be Mr. Q who broke the news to me. My first mentor, would betray me. For a kid who never had anything, leave it to the first adult I ever trusted, to be the one to betray me. He could do something. He could do anything. He was my hero, and what he'd do was take the blame for something that was beyond his control.

It was May. The weather forecast rain. It was a warm day. When we were hitting the showers after gym, Mr. Q said, 'See me before you leave the gym.'

I didn't shower. I was half dressed, my shirt unbuttoned, and I was sweaty from running inside. When Mr. Q said, "See me," I went to see him right away. I stood in the doorway of Mr. Q's office. He was sitting behind his desk with his feet up on it.

"Charles," he said, hopping up and coming to the door.

He clamped his hands on my shoulders, like he did early on, when he'd take me aside to learn something he wanted me to know.

He guided me out through the side door, beside the gym, that emptied into the teacher's parking lot.

While I'd learned to trust Mr. Q, he was scaring me.

"You are going to the new junior high school, Charles," he said. "I checked the list. Your name is on it. This will be our last year together, but I want you to make me a promise."

"No!" I shouted, not understanding what he'd said.

He might have stuck a knife into me. They were about to take everything away from me and they would leave me nothing.

"Your name is on the list, Charles. You will go to the new junior high school. Before we part, I want you to promise me, when you get up there," he said, pointing to the high school. I want you to promise me you'll go out for the track team."

"I won't," I bellowed. "I won't go there. I want to come here."

The rain hid my tears. I never cried in front of anyone. Nothing could make me cry, but the man I trusted above all others, the man who created an athlete out of nothing, made me cry.

"We're standing here, until you promise me."

"I won't," I said. "I won't."

He held me in place with his hands clamped on my shoulders. We waited. The late bell rang. We waited.

"I'm going to be late," I spat.

"If your teacher says something to you, you tell them to talk to me about it. I want that promise. I've never asked you for anything."

It was raining harder, and he wasn't giving up.

"I promise," I finally said, wanting to get away from him.

I had no idea why he wanted that promise. I didn't intend to keep it. The man had knifed me in the heart.

But what I didn't know, Mr. Q's best friend, since childhood, was the coach of the track team at the high school. My first mentor was directing me to the man destined to become my third mentor, but I didn't want to hear it. I hated Mr. Q. He was just like every adult I'd ever known. I couldn't trust them.

Why he wanted that promise didn't matter one iota, the day he broke my heart.

That day, I didn't care. My life had finally been moving forward, and in a few short minutes, the rug was yanked out from under me. All gains were erased in seconds.

There was only one person I could trust. Me.

Treating this information like it was no big deal, Mr. Q lowered the boom on me, and the day was only half over. My mind went into a massive withdrawal. My mind went chaotic. It was going in all directions. I went through the motions of going through the motions. I didn't know what to do, and the next thing I knew, the final bell rang, and 6th period science was over.

I needed to get to Tommy. I had to get to Tommy.

His smile changed to a look of concern, as he watched me charging toward him. He sensed something serious had happened.

"What's wrong? You look like hell," he said.

"They're opening a new junior high school. Mr. Q says that I'm going there. I won't be coming back to school here," I told him.

"Let's go ask Mr. Warnock. He's probably still in his room," Tommy said.

Mr. Warnock's room was only a few doors down from the exit. We ran to catch him before he left.

His door was still open. Mr. Warnock stood behind his desk, putting papers in his briefcase.

"Well, what has you two gentlemen so excited this dreary afternoon?"

"Mr. Warnock," Tommy said. "Mr. Q told Charles, he won't be coming here for 9th grade. Something about a new school opening, That's not true, is it? It can't be true."

We stood in front of our teacher, hoping for a reprieve. Mr. Q had to be wrong. I wanted this to all go away. I wanted the new junior high school to go away. I didn't want my life to change for the worse. I didn't want to lose my friends.

"Oh, yes, I did get something on that this morning," he said. "I think I put it in my top drawer.

Mr. Warnock slid the big top drawer open, removing a large envelope. He put it down on his desk and removed the contents. The first page had writing on it, the second page was all names.

"Yes, here's your name, Charles. You'll be going to the new junior high. That'll be nice. A brand new school," he said.

I said, "I won't go. I want to come here. I want to be with my friends. Can you take my name off the list?"

"Your name is on the list. You will be going to the new school. You'll make new friends, Charles. It'll be a great adventure. You'll see. You'll like it," Mr. Warnock predicted, trying to sell me on it.

"I won't like it. I won't go," I argued, never arguing.

"No way to avoid it. Your name is on the list," he said.

"Thank you Mr. Warnock," Tommy said, pulling me away before I lost it completely. "You can't talk to a teacher like that."

"Why not. My life's over. What's he going to do, spank me," I said bitterly.

"It won't be that bad, Dickie. It's the rules. You don't get a say," he said.

"It's my life and I don't get a say? Well excuse me," I said, needing to strike out at anyone handy.

I'd been betrayed by both the adults I'd grown to trust. In two years, Mr. Q had never let me down, until today. Mr. Warnock took me from one advance to the next, since I entered his class. Mr. Warnock had located my brain, and taught me how to use it.

When I needed him to rescue me, he failed me. My name was on the list, and there was no doubt about it.

They built a new school just to ruin my life.

I'd been doing so well, since the summer I turned 12. I'd soared to heights I didn't realize I could reach. First I came to accept that I was an athlete, and then, not in my wildest dreams did I think I could learn to read and write, and do the things I'd done in 8th grade.

It wasn't fair, but what about life had ever been fair to me? Why should it finally give me a break. I would be returned to where I came from, and I wouldn't see or be able to reach people I depended upon.

Life wasn't fair, and I had no life as long as people were allowed to ruin it.

Giving up Mr. Q and Mr. Warnock was made easier by their inability to help me. They'd created me. I was nothing before they showed up in my life.

Giving up my best friend was damaging in ways I couldn't conceive then. Tommy was my indispensable man. He knew what to say and do. He celebrated my victories as if they were his. It was Tommy, and his family was part of the deal. They were like my family.

How did I survive without the friendship I'd come to depend on?

Tommy knew nothing about my life before I met him. I would never tell him how lame I'd been, before I walked into Mr. Warnock's early CORE class that past September.

Tommy saw the new school as a temporary set back, and we'd renew our friendship after we'd spend the next year in different schools.

We'd been friends for six months. As the days passed, I had no feeling that we'd be together in a year and a half from now. Nothing could be assured. If they could open up a new junior high school, they could open a new high school.

When Tommy and I said our final goodbye, I didn't see a future with him in it.

Sitting in Carlton's living room, my mind went numb, as I revisited a particularly harsh period in my life. I wasn't sure what to tell him and what to set aside. I never realized the power memories had hidden inside them. I felt the pain like it was happening all over again. I needed to get a grip.

"It ended what had been my first run of good fortune. Over my 7th and 8th grade years in school, I'd become an athlete, a scholar, and a best friend, because of three people who came into my life quite by accident, or perhaps, some power in the universe said, 'If we don't give this kid a break, he won't survive. The break was over," I said.

"The cruelty that came with the list, no one understood but me. I wasn't important. I was a name on a list. I'd go to the new school. I'd make the most of it, or I wouldn't. It was all up to me," I said.

"It wasn't Mr. Q's or Mr. Warnock's fault, but I needed to be angry with someone. They'd do, and it made being separated from them easier at a time when everything would be hard," I said.

"There was one thing for sure, I wouldn't be depending on any more teachers. I wouldn't allow myself to be as close to anyone as I was to the people I was leaving behind. I'd known such pain as the pain tearing at my insides over the final weeks of school."

Carlton looked at a loss for words. He simply looked at me.

"Did you go to the new school?" Carlton asked.

"I did. My name was on the list," I said.

"Hardly seems fair," he said. "You should have been allowed to continue the success you were having at the school you were in."

"My name was on the list. That's all that was important," I said, still angry all these years later.

I sounded like a fool.

"It's not the way things work. I was just another kid, a name on a list. The progress I'd made didn't matter. My name was on the list. The list mattered."

"I couldn't have done it. I'd have curled up in a ball and died."

"That's what I did, inside. It hardened me in ways that keep me from getting close to anyone. It was another lesson I learned," I said.

"How did your friend take it?" Carlton asked.

"Tommy was as stunned by the news as I was. The idea we'd be separated for at least the next school year changed everything. We'd become close in the six months we'd been friends. We spent every afternoon together, and if I went to the new school, the afternoons together were over," I said.

"It's sad to hear about that," Carlton said.

"Tommy was Tommy. If he found out the world was coming to an end, he'd have tried to make me feel better. He was my best friend," I said, needing to change the subject.

"Maybe Mr. Q and Mr. Warnock had no idea how hard the news hit me, but Tommy knew. He felt a similar sense of loss, before we parted. Best friends aren't easy to come by. It was especially true for me. I wasn't making anymore friends. The idea of making a friend, and then losing him, made friendship more of a liability than it ever had been before."

"I'd give Tommy up, because I had to, but I'd never be that close to anyone else. Having a best friend was the best thing yet, losing one was about the worst thing yet. I wouldn't lose another friend. Losing this one came close to killing me."

"I understand why," Carlton said. "Denying yourself something so essential is a big step to take."

"Good parents are essential to survival, but I survived anyway," I said. "Certain things took me close to the edge of my mortality. When one did, I made sure I didn't let it happen again. It wasn't a conscious decision. It was what kept me alive, when I had nothing to live for."

"Yes, I can understand that," he said, saying no more.

"Tommy sensed the emotional toll the news took on me. There was a lot of silence over the next few weeks. Tommy was afraid of upsetting me, so, when I said nothing, he said nothing too. We were together, and what was there to say?"

On the final day of school, we went to Tommy's house, as usual. Once it became time for me to leave, we stood in his front yard staring at each other. This was the end of our friendship.

"See you next year," Tommy said, not sure we would.

"Yeah," I said. "See you next year."

We shook hands. I hesitated for a second.

I stepped off the curb to walk to my house.

The air had become heavy. I could hardly breathe.

"I started my walk home," I told Carlton. "I didn't look back. I didn't want Tommy to see my tears. Once I was out of sight, I sat down, and I cried like a baby. I'd lost my best friend. What I thought I had was an illusion. I'd never had anything. It took one new school to cancel it all out."

"I didn't know what having a friend was like. Once I'd had one, I didn't want another one. I couldn't find a better friend than Tommy had been to me. He lent me his family. He was happier than I was, when I succeeded at something. How did I replace that? He predicted my victories. More than that, he was part of everything I accomplished in 8th grade. In some ways, he was why I succeeded. Because he was my friend. There would be no other friend like him."

"What happened, Rick?" Carlton asked.

"I stood up, rubbed the tears off my face, and walked home.

I wasn't going to look back. Looking back only created pain. My life with a good friend at my side, and mentors in my corner, was over. I'd go to the new school. I'd be a lot more cautious about the people who tried to get close to me. I wanted no friends who'd cut and run at the first sign of complications. My life was a complication.

Looking back at what my life was about for a fleeting moment didn't accomplish anything. Behind me was one lost child, and the people who found me. I'd done a lot of catching up and I matured, while having people on my side. They were gone now.

Maybe I wasn't stupid. Maybe there were things I could do. I'd do my best to keep my grades up. I'd work hard, because, while I did, there'd be no time to think unhappy thoughts.

First, there was Florida.

I'd never left anything behind me before. Florida was a refuge from the insanity that lived in my house, This year I left the life I'd found at school. I left the people who believed, I was somebody worth knowing.

I couldn't wait to see the placid waters of Choctawhatchee Bay. I longed for the emerald sea, the Gulf of Mexico.

I always found peace there. Peace in the midst of the turmoil my life had become..

"I left Tommy's for the last time in early June. My life had taken on the characteristics of a rolling tragedy. The forces in the universe were aligned against me once more. You can't bypass rule makers, who build a school to make my life miserable," I said. "Neither Mr. Q, nor Mr. Warnock sensed the pain I was in, or how much I depended on them to keep me moving forward."

"I've got to be careful with the questions you pose. Your situation defies logic," Carlton said. "I don't know that I could have gone on under the circumstances you were in, but you find a way to make it work, no matter what happens to you. Your most outstanding characteristic, as I see it, is your ability to overcome whatever obstacles are thrust into your path."

"There was Florida. That's all that was in my path," I said.

"Florida had a unique ability to soothe me. It was the only place where I was free of constraint. Even today, when I have a need to sort through things, I head for Florida. It represents peace to me."

"My beach has been destroyed. There is a row of houses on the ground where the brush stood as a barrier to the bay. My beach is a seawall that allows houses to sit above any storm surge on Choctawhatchee Bay. Now, I drive to the Wayside Park and I can walk to Destin if I really want to ponder things. Few sunbathers venture far beyond the pier. Once in a while I meet beachcombers walking back toward the pier, but very seldom. It's still the most beautiful place I've ever been, but civilization has begun to encroach on the pristine beach. Restaurants, hotels, and stores that sell junk to tourists are spreading out from the entrance to the Wayside Park on both sides of Route 98. One day there will be nothing but businesses from Fort Walton Beach to Destin. No one knows the beauty lost in the quest for the Almighty Dollar."

"Once beauty is lost, it can't be restored," Carlton said.

"Knowing the way it was is a burden I carry. Remembering the pristine majestic beauty that was once there, makes me sad for the people who think those shops have always been there," I said.

"I'd like to have seen it the way it was your first summer there."

"That Florida doesn't exist anymore, not in Fort Walton Beach. It's simply another overpopulated, tacky, beach town. The Gulf is still there, but there are so many stores. There are sand dunes between the highway and the Gulf. The shops are built in front of the dunes. The locals know how to get to the Gulf, and they take their friends, but you could drive all the way to Destin and not know that the Gulf of Mexico is less than a hundred yards away," I said.

"It's only been a little over ten years, since I made my first trip to Florida. Didn't take long to commercialize it," I said.

"Florida's always had the ability to make me forget my cares and woes. Being taken out of my life in Maryland, and dropping me off in Florida was a trip I was anxious to make. It was especially welcome the summer between 8th and 9th grade."

Even in the midst of turmoil, Florida didn't let me down. The new family, across the street from Granny and Pop, were still there. They greeted me like a long lost friend. From the first day back, I was invited to sit in on the Canasta games that went on into the night. Uncle Dan could be depended on to interrupt us by eleven, asking, 'Isn't it time to take the garbage out?'

It was a polite way of saying, go home, but subtleties were lost on me, but luckily. Aunt Madeline interpreted.

She'd say, "Leave your cards in place. We'll pick up where we left off, during the day tomorrow."

"There was an ongoing Canasta game that summer," I said.

"In Florida, everything was bigger, better, and more exciting. The problem with Florida, time moved too fast. I was saying goodbye to Granny and Pop, shortly after saying hello," I said.

"I always wanted to stay for one more week, one more month, forever more, but my life wasn't meant to be that easy."

"You went back home. You went to the new school, because there was no alternative," Carlton said.

"I did," I said. "There was none."

"I really feel sorry about that," he said.

"Florida did, what I needed Florida to do. It put time and space between me and the things I'd done in 7th and 8th grade. I still had my resolve, but the anger subsided. I knew what it was like having no one to depend on. I just pretended it's the way it had always been. That wasn't hard. It had always been that way."

"It was a quiet trip home. There was nothing for me to look forward to. I'd hate every minute I was in the new school. I wouldn't make new friends. I'd keep my athletic ability to myself," I said.

"There was no joy in the welcome home hug from my mother. I don't remember my mother hugging me before. Being on the Honor Roll changed my mother's approach. Maybe I wasn't so bad," I said.

"Better late than never," Carlton said.

"No, it's not true. My mother didn't do anything without her having a reason for doing it. I knew better than to turn my back on her," I said.

"You were what, fourteen. You'd learned that lesson," he said.

"I'd lived with her my entire life. I wasn't berated at the dinner table any longer, but they didn't want to take a chance that I might revert back to being their stupid kid," I said. "They could let up on me, as long as I kept bringing home a report card full of A(s)."

"At least they had sense enough to see it that way," Carlton said.

"It was only my summers away that had my mother remembering she was my mother. I took no solace from a single hug. I could have used a few hugs when I was six, seven, and eight, but there was none to spare."

"It was a bit late for my mother to lay claim to motherhood. After fourteen years, I knew where the power center was in our family. My father issued the punishment. My mother called the shots. It was her having us beaten every morning before my father went to work. It was her who led the inquisitions at the dinner table. She had a lousy childhood. I realized that, but she didn't need to make my childhood as bad as she could possibly make it. I knew my mother. Indeed I did."

"The new school was the ugliest building ever built. It had three stories. It was a perfect rectangle. Besides the driveway in front of it, the only distinguishing feature were the woods behind it. The entire area was woods, when we first moved there. By the end of the next year, Marlow Heights had sprung up, which took down the rest of the woods where I once roamed," I said.

"The school was built beside the creek a half a mile from where I lived. There was one barren street that came from Branch Avenue and it was put there to take you to the new school. The back of the houses on Sinclair Dr., in Hillcrest Heights, butted up against this new asphalt road, that was a ten minute walk from where I lived."

"Sounds bleak," he said.

"They'd thrown it up in a couple of months. There was no street there six months before. It was a basic building. They were told to build a school, and they built your basic school," I said. "I doubt it took three months to erect that box."

"You are lucky you survived it. Teenage suicides are an epidemic. With the kind of life you'd been subjected to, I'm glad they didn't destroy your desire to live," Carlton said.

"I had no desire to live. I had no desire for anything. I wanted nothing. I asked for nothing. I expected nothing. That was my life. It was validated by the new school. It was built as another obstacle for me to overcome. It was built to keep me from being with the people I depended on to challenge me, and made living tolerable. They wanted to help me. They were the only ones to see that I could do something. They may have even cared about me," I said. "In the end, they simply let the system roll over me, and I was on my own again."

"I want to stress this. I had no desire to live. I was alive. It was my state of being, and I had no urge to die. It was what it was. There was no more and no less. It's what was there, and like the rest of my life, I'd find a way to survive it. I was a survivor," I said earnestly.

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