Back Then We All Liked Carter Best
by Corey Mesler
Back then we all liked Carter best. It was easy because we ranked everything. Favorite song, favorite TV show, favorite neighbor to torment (Mrs. Prewitt because she threw things at us, kitchen utensils, TV guides, cat toys), favorite spot to hide, favorite ball player.
In our neighborhood, on Kenneth Street, where we all lived, there were so many children around my age it was like an advertisement for the baby boom, which apparently had taken place ten or twelve years earlier. Carter said that his parents met on a blind date. For a while we thought this meant that one of his parents couldn’t see and we devised peculiar tests to find out which one.
We played outside a lot, despite the heat. Memphis in summer can be like living inside a large, hot carnivore. We didn’t mind. We played hide and seek, kick the can, army. There were so many boys that army was an agreeable approximation of real warfare. Occasionally, these pretend skirmishes led to actual fights, like when Carter once took exception to a dirt clod I had thrown that skimmed his shoulder like a dragonfly. Carter’s disapproval could wither you and I was withered. Later, we made up over Kool-Aid and Parcheesi.
We all liked Carter best. He was the strongest, physically, and he had the kind of personality that just naturally made him the leader of whatever gambit was undertaken. He was the bravest of us, too, the most intrepid. And when Carter was quiet we thought he was also deeper than us, that he lived in his head from which he could see the vast panorama of life unfold as naturally as a stream. Carter possibly saw the future, we thought.
Carter was also the only boy to get a real gun. We all had BB guns and pellet guns, small arms that popped when shot but could still make small birds fall, or coke bottles burst, but Carter had a .22 rifle with a scope. It was as glamorous as a bazooka compared to our toy guns. We imagined that, with it, he could kill an enemy from a mile away. We imagined him shooting the Japs like our heroes on TV, on Rat Patrol and Combat.
Once we all went to a 7/11 that was not in our neighborhood. We had our own 7/11, about a mile from Kenneth Street, as well as Raleigh Drug Store and The Hobby Shop, places of vast arcana and discovery for kids. I remember when Slurpees were first introduced and how we thought they were just about the most exotic concoction on God’s Earth. At Raleigh Drug Store the beverage of choice, for a long time, was either a cherry coke or a vanilla coke. Our gang split evenly between the two.
But once we ventured to a 7/11 approximately another mile away, just on the outskirts of the known. We knew the proprietor there was mean as a snake because we heard that he once had called the cops on Curtis Branson just for spitting. We went that day, I think there were five of us, to steal as much as we could, as quickly as we could, before the old man could catch on to why there were suddenly so many strange kids in his store.
I got a Snickers bar, my favorite. Mark a flashlight, Robbie a can of beer. We thought Robbie had just about taken the prize until we found out what Carter had pilfered. It was a Playboy Magazine and we wore that thing out before we ever got back to our own neighborhood. We sat on a curb and ripped through its pages as if they were the map leading to the gold of El Dorado. A Playboy! Some of us had only heard of the magazine before that day, never dreaming that we would actually hold it in our hands and see grown women naked.
It came as a great surprise to us, perhaps the single most profound moment of our youth, or, for some of us, our lives, when Carter turned his own gun on himself. His mother found him in the attic above the garage with the rifle stock between his legs and his mouth still around the barrel. Carter had been dead almost a half day before he was found. Looking back I can’t imagine that this was really so. We were always out and about. We were always together. Where did we think Carter had gone? Didn’t we miss him?
I miss him now. Even here decades later, I still miss him. We liked Carter best and it counted for nothing. It didn’t save him, or us, from the creeping mystery which is death. That mystery is with us all now, forever, like a physical deformity, marking every kid from Kenneth Street, who knew Carter, and had rated him Number One.
Corey Mesler has published in numerous journals and anthologies. He has published two novels, Talk: A Novel in Dialogue (2002) and We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon (2006). His first full length poetry collection, Some Identity Problems (2008), is out from Foothills Publishing and his book of short stories, Listen: 29 Short Conversations, appeared in March 2009. He also has two novels set to be published in the next year. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize numerous times, and one of his poems was chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. He has two children, Toby, age 20, and Chloe, age 13. With his wife, he runs Burke’s Book Store , one of the country’s oldest (1875) and best independent bookstores. He also claims to have written “In the Year 2525.” He can be found at coreymesler.com .