This vacation, the only vacation we ever had, gives dad an idea. He wants to retire from the Air Force and move to Florida, so that’s what we do. Who cares? I don’t have any friends anyway, so it’s not a big sacrifice. I hope Florida kids are nicer than Arizona kids. It’s so hot you can’t play outside in Arizona. It’s unbearable in Mesa. Florida can’t be as hot as that. Since dad’s retiring, it’s only one more place. We won’t have to relocate again.
We first move into this crappy apartment above the Western Auto Store on Drew Street. Mom was really upset because it was such a run-down place. It’s very, very small and she’s used to living in officer’s quarters, larger houses off base. Here we have to use outside stairs to get to the front door and once you’re inside the front door it’s still kind of weird. There’s this screened-in enclosure with dirt on the floor, like a patio or an unattended garden upstairs there, between the front door and the real front door. Mom hates this part the most. There’s dirt and everybody knows she does not like dirt. I’ve never seen her go outside. Dad says, “This is the only rental I could find until our house is ready.” Mom is upset and always crying about the apartment, no matter how temporary. We’re upset at dad for making mom cry. The facts don’t matter. You made mom cry so you’re the bad person. Welcome to retirement, dad, now we hate you.
George immediately makes new friends and disappears. He’s gone all the time. He’s the smart one. That leaves me home with my little sister, the twins, mom and dad. At least I’m smart enough to get out of the house too, but I don’t know where to go. What kid is going to go hang out around the Western Auto? Me. I’d go down the creaky stairs and walk around the aisles at Western Auto looking at bolts and tools. When I couldn’t stand that any longer, I’d go outside. Outside, in this case, is a messed up screened-in abandoned garden out back. The bushes were all pulled up so it was just a lot of dry, hot dirt, but it’s in the shade.
I like playing out here so dad got me a Civil War army set, with blue soldiers and gray soldiers, to play with in the dirt. I built hills and valleys and I facilitate battles for hours. It’s an escape to be outside, even though it’s so sticky hot. I didn’t think anyplace could be hotter than Mesa, but I’d never heard of humidity. I can feel sweat through my pants and down my legs. I can’t say I miss Arizona, but I’ll be more careful next time I say anyplace is better than Mesa.
This army men set has generals and officers and enlisted men, each with different uniforms. I like the uniforms and I think everybody should have a uniform. They’re neat, professional and they have a purpose. You know who everyone is when people wear uniforms. I learn this from my Civil War experience and I learned this from dad when he was in the Air Force. I like rank and structure. I like order. You can learn a lot more from army men than real people sometimes.
When school starts, I know this is the last chance I have to reinvent myself. I’ll have one more chance in a few years and at that time I finally I succeed, but I don’t know that now. All I know is I’m floundering from being shy and moving so many times and I want to be somebody else.
My family calls me Davey because my middle name is David. I don’t like Davey. When I start my new class in my new school, Skycrest Elementary, my new teacher leans over and asks me, “Do you want to be called Davey, Charles, Charlie or what?” I tell her, “I want to be Charlie.” This is all the remaking of myself I’m capable of, even though I’m now in the sixth grade. She tells the class, “We have a new student today. Please welcome Charlie to our class.”
Everyone in my class has gone to the same school since the first grade, you can tell. They all look at me like, “Who is this?” They all talk to each other about the Little League game they had the night before. It’s obvious everyone knows each other, their names, their family, and everything you could possibly want to learn about other kids. No one wants to know me. No one comes over to talk to me. I’m an alien.
We play softball for P.E. and I’m sitting on the bench with the rest of my assigned team. I’ve never played softball before so I’m worried I’m not going to be very good. Somebody next to me says, “What time you coming over?”
“Are we spending the night at your house?” another kid says.
“What time you want my dad to drive me over?”
“Who else is coming?”
“Gary and John,” the kid closest to me says. “And Alan and everybody. We’re all spending the night.”
“I gotta ask my mom if I can spend the night. We’re supposed to do family day this weekend.”
I’m sitting there looking at these kids, listening. They see me looking at them and they stop talking. “What are you guys planning?” I say. I’m not trying to invite myself. I know enough not to do that. I’m trying to make conversation. I’m trying to make friends.
“Nothing,” the kid next to me says. He quickly gets up and walks away to the other end of the bench. The rest of the kids scoot over closer to him, away from me. I give up after that. I listen to everybody being friends with everybody else and I don’t try to make any more conversation, ever. Now everybody wonders why the new guy doesn’t talk, so they don’t talk to me. I kind of hurt myself by my own actions.
We go back to class and it’s time for math. They’re doing long division and I never had that before, either. The teacher has a game she wants to play. She splits the class in half and we line up into two teams. She puts a long division problem on the board and says she’ll see which team can finish the problem first. She has a stop watch to time us.
She puts the first math problem up on the board and I’m thinking I can’t do that. I don’t know this. I don’t know what the long division symbol means or what’s divided into what. The kids go up and do these problems like they’re nothing. I’m fifth in line and getting sweatier as I get closer. My heart’s pounding and I’m trying not to breathe too hard through my mouth.
I pick up my piece of chalk and wait. I’m against another kid and he’s focused, ready to try to beat me. If I could say anything, I’d tell him he doesn’t have to worry. The teacher writes 384 divided by 11 on the board and says, “Okay, go!” I freeze. “Show your work,” she says. I don’t even move. The other kid finishes in five or six seconds. It’s official. I’m a moron. I’m so embarrassed. Right in front of the whole class, I prove I’m a retard. I go back to my seat and look down at the floor.
I start walking home on Cleveland, crossing at Venus and before I get to Mars where I turn left, I start to cry. I’m walking down Mars, walking straight ahead, crying. Why am I so stupid and everybody else is so smart? I hate myself. My chances of making friends now went from very little to zero. My heart feels like it weighs five hundred pounds.
When I turn the corner at Rainbow, I make sure my eyes are dry since I have to toughen up to go inside. I can’t tell my parents. I can’t talk to George. I can’t tell anyone. I look up enough to see where I’m going but I keep my head down for the rest of the year, walking to and from school, at school, everywhere. I’m just looking up enough to see where I’m going.
“I told them I want to be called Charlie,” I tell my mom.
“That was my daddy’s name, Charlie was,” she says. “I’m glad you decided to do that.”
My dad comes home and my mom says, “Davey wants to be called Charlie. I think it’s wonderful.”
My dad gets all huffy, “How come you want to be called Charlie? Your name’s Davey.”
“I don’t like Davey anymore. It’s a baby name. I want to be called Charlie.”
“You’ve been called Davey all your life.”
“Yeah and I don’t like it. It’s a baby name and I don’t like it anymore. I want to be called Charlie.”
That’s the end of that. My mom immediately starts to call me Charlie but my dad won’t call me Charlie, no matter what. I ask my mom later, “Why does he refuse to call me Charlie?”
“’Cause it was my daddy’s name,” she says, “and he doesn’t like him.”
It’s not like we planned it beforehand but my little sister does it, too. She wants to be called Marty instead of Annie, making my dad even angrier. My dad named her Ann, her middle name, and my mom named her Martha, after herself. George and I are okay with calling her Marty but we keep forgetting. Nobody ends up calling her Marty. The twins don’t go to school because they’re special needs, and George is George’s first name so he doesn’t have this quandary. He makes friends no matter what his name.
The kids in class can’t wait for recess but I dread it. It’s when it’s most obvious to everyone that no one likes me. I have to stand around all by myself waiting for it to be over. It’s torture every day. I watch kids play, walk around, sit under a tree and look around, look at the sky, and hope recess will be over soon so I don’t have to remind everyone I have no friends. I never threw a ball or held a mitt before so I’m not going to join the softball game at recess. All I can do is shoot firearms and that’s not a skill meant for recess.
At my first parent teacher conference we all sit down around a little table in the back of class, my teacher, my mom and dad, and me. “We’re very happy to have Charlie in our class,” the teacher says, starting out. It’s the first thing she says and she’s already pissed off my dad.
“Charlie?” my dad says. “His name’s Davey.”
My mom says, “He wants to be called Charlie.”
“Why do you want to be called Charlie for?” my dad says to me, roughly. I don’t say anything, like a good Blevins. I continue to look straight at the teacher. The teacher can see I’m nervous about this name thing.
“Anyway,” she says, “he told us he wants to be called Charlie so we call him Charlie. And we’re happy to have him in our class this year. He’s coming along, he’s at grade level in most of his subjects but he needs a little work on his spelling. Spelling and math, I notice . . .”
“What problems is Davey having in spelling?” my dad says. He won’t let it go. He keeps calling me Davey while the teacher answers calling me Charlie. My mom sits there with the serene little look on her face that she always has. My dad sits there steaming. I don’t know why he’s so pissed about this. It’s my name. Let me be called what I want to be called. I’m not really worried about your opinion of my name. I don’t know why he’s taking it personally.
The assistant principal at school comes into our classroom and asks who wants to be a crossing guard. I had seen crossing guards but never thought about being one until he asks for volunteers. They get to wear uniforms so I raise my hand. I’m excited. I finally get to use my Civil War army men skills. My teacher looks over right at me. It’s the first time she’s seen me lift my head above my shoulders. Charlie’s excited about something?
Lots of other kids raise their hands and want to be crossing guards, too, but she picks me immediately. I’m sent to the assistant principal’s office after school where he hands out our equipment: a badge, an orange belt and a crossing guard sash. “Here you go,” he says. “Be at the intersection in front of the school tomorrow morning, fifteen minutes early.”
That’s it. That’s all the training we get. I take the uniform home, run to the bathroom and close the door, pin the badge to the orange belt and put it on. I look at myself in the mirror, take off the badge and shine it up, put it back on and look at myself in the mirror again. I am so proud to have that badge. I’m obsessed with that badge. I show my mom.
“What’s this?” she says.
“I’m a school crossing guard now, mom. They gave me this thing to wear with the badge.”
“What are you supposed to do?”
“Help kids cross the street. I can’t figure out how to do this. I need help with the belt. It’s too small.”
“That’s nice,” she says, her favorite thing to say. She takes the belt and adjusts it. I go back to my room and shine the badge up a little more.
I feel very important on my first day. I am now doing something important by helping kids to cross the street safely. I am useful and I am valuable, serving and protecting kids. I have an identity wearing that uniform. You don’t need friends when you have a shiny badge.
No one ever talks about how I’m doing. No one ever even talks to me. Teachers, parents - any adults – they don’t talk. They don’t want to see me after class and they don’t want to help or spend extra time with me or suggest a tutor. Adults don’t interact with me at all. They stay in their own world and I’m in mine. I’m okay. Who needs friends when you have a badge?