“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
For being the outcast, George knows more about our history than anybody. He’s like a library of stories for me, my own private Southern storyteller brother. We’ll be sitting at the table, nobody’s talking and he says, did you know? That’s how he starts it: did you know? Did you know dad was wild man, he says.
He was a wild man. He stole a neighbor’s carriage, took it apart and reassembled it on top of the roof of their church. You don’t think the pastor gave our grandparents an earful on that, do you? He did a lot of fooling about and got a girl pregnant, an ugly girl. He himself wasn’t all that pretty to look at, even then. Dad’s dad, he about had enough of that. You can’t marry that girl, his dad tells him. She too ugly. You best get yer ass in the military. We don’t want no ugly babies round here.
Dad did just that and got himself captured the very first battle in North Africa. War’s over, he comes home to find a pretty nurse and marries her. He’s in the Air Force now, moving all over. One day this girl Sue shows up. We’re living way the hell out in Newfoundland. Mom says, who’s this? That’s how she finds out he had whole life before her. Sue moves in, another kid in our house. Do you remember her?
You must have been too young. Being the oldest normal kid, I ask who’s this. Mom says, ask your daddy. She knows I won’t talk to him. I learned it from Aunt Hattie. After a while Sue’s gone. Never saw her again. We were the lucky ones, George says. We have a family ‘cause mom’s not ugly.
The way dad is with George I don’t know how he can call that lucky, particularly once we moved to Florida. We got this crappy apartment above Western Auto on Drew Street and right away mom’s upset. It’s such a run-down place. It’s small, too, and she’s used to living in officer’s quarters, larger houses off base. Here we have a set of 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 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 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 goes outside, 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? I go down the creaky stairs and walk around the aisles at Western Auto looking at bolts and tools. When I can’t stand that any longer, I go outside. Outside, in this case, is a messed up screened-in abandoned garden out back. The bushes are dead and all pulled up so it’s a lot of dry, hot dirt, but it’s in the shade.
I like playing out here so dad gets me a Civil War army set, with blue soldiers and gray soldiers, to set up in the dirt. I build hills and valleys and I facilitate battles for hours. It’s an escape to be outside, even though Florida is 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 being 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.
Other families talk to each other. Why doesn’t our family talk to each other? We move into the house so now everybody has a room to hide in unless we’re watching TV but when we’re watching TV, we aren’t commenting on what we’re watching. We’re just watching. I’m floundering from being shy and moving so many times, and with George gone so much how am I going to learn how to talk?
My family calls me Davey because my middle name is David. I’m done with Davey. I want Davey dead. I want out of my head that badly. There’s nobody else in there to talk to and I’m tired of me. I’m all out of tricks to entertain myself. When I start sixth grade at Skycrest Elementary, the teacher leans over and asks me, do you want to be called Davey, Charles, Charlie or what?
If I have a new name, I will be somebody else without even switching bodies - more like changing clothes than going from caterpillar to butterfly. I can be someone that people will like. I’ll have friends, like George. George has a lot of friends at school he talks to, even girls. He does the things other kids at school do, like talk to people and go places with them. He’s the only one who talks at home, but my dad says you don’t want to be like George. Don’t be like George, Davey.
I want to be Charlie, I say. Davey is officially dead.
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 keep talking to each other about the Little League game they had the night before. It’s obvious everyone knows everything you could possibly want to learn about other kids but no one comes over to talk to me.
At P.E. I’m sitting on the bench with the rest of my assigned team, trying to remember I’m Charlie if someone calls my new name. I’ve never played softball before so I’m worried I’m not going to be very good. Kids near me start talking.
What time you coming over?
Are we spending the night at your house?
What time you want my dad to drive me over?
Who else is coming?
The kid closest to me says, Gary and John. And Alan. And everybody. We’re all spending the night.
I’ll ask my mom if I can do a sleepover. We’re supposed to do a family day.
I’m listening. Should I not be? They catch me looking at them so they stop talking.
What are you guys planning? I say. I’m not trying to invite myself. I know enough not to do that.
Nothing, the kid next to me says. He gets up and moves over to the other end of the bench. The rest of the team scoots over closer to him and away from me. 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 try to talk to me, either. I did the best wrong thing I could possibly do.
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. I can’t do that. 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. Can I figure this out? My heart’s pounding and I’m trying not to breathe too hard through my mouth.
It’s my turn. I know long division like I know softball and how to make friends. I pick up my piece of chalk and wait. I’m against another kid and he’s focused, staring at the stupid board with his face tight, ready to try to beat me. If I could talk, I’d tell this kid he should thank me: he’s going to look really good in a minute. He’s going to be good at math, starting right now.
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 for the rest of the day.
My walk home begins on Cleveland Street. I cross at Venus. Before I get to Mars where I turn left, I start to cry. I’m walking down Mars Street, a sixth-grader, crying. Why am I so stupid and everybody else is so smart? My chances of making friends now went from very little to zero. Who would ever talk to me now? 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 go inside to quiet as outer space family. I look up enough to watch where I’m going but I keep my head down for the rest of the year, walking to and from school, at school and everywhere.
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. 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. A couple of days later I ask my mom, Why does he refuse to call me Charlie?
’Cause it was my daddy’s name, she says, and he doesn’t like him.
The kids in class can’t wait for recess but I dread it. It’s when it’s the most obvious that no one likes me. I stand all by myself - far away from anyone so there’s no question no one likes me - 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, praying recess will be over soon so I don’t have to keep reminding 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 and prove I’m not only friendless but also uncoordinated. All I know how to do is shoot firearms in the Arizona desert and that’s not a skill meant for recess.
George comes around to get something to eat at our new house sometimes. He’s having a sandwich so I make a sandwich and sit down at the table with him. You know mom’s dad died of drinking, he says.
Yeah, mom said he vomited buckets of blood before he died.
I’ll never drink because of that, and because of the way it makes daddy act.
Daddy drinks? I had no idea.
At my first parent teacher conference we all sit down around a little table in the back of class, the teacher, mom and dad, and me. We’re very happy to have Charlie in our class, the teacher says. 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, all Southern-like, He wants to be called Charlie.
Why do you want to be called Charlie for? my dad says to me. I continue to look at the teacher, ignoring dad like mom does.
The teacher can see I’m nervous so she looks at my mom and, when that gets uncomfortable, over to my dad. There’s not enough time allotted for this conference if she’s waiting for us to talk. We have the communication skills of zombies, without the personality. She’s going to have to carry the whole conversation: the reason everybody regrets starting a conversation with us.
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. 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. It’s not like I vanished. I’m here until I can reinvent myself again. Next time I do it right.