I arrived for class on Saturday afternoon about fifteen minutes early. Don greeted me and immediately asked, “Did you win first prize?”
“No, nothing. There were some other good performances so…” I said to cover up.
“Well, you’ll get gold next time, kid.”
I didn’t want to get into the details with Don, so I just said thanks.
Carl Ray, with his bright smile and swagger, showed up a few minutes later. He asked me about the talent show as soon as we sat down. I told him the same thing I’d told Don, hoping it would stop there.
“Wish you’d grab first for the new song, you know, ‘cause you composed it,” Carl Ray said with a note of disappointment.
Not that I thought I was better than the ballerinas, but heck, I wanted some credit for being original. But that went out the window. I hadn’t been able to do it without Carl Ray, and my gut told me he deserved the truth.
“Well, that was the problem,” I said.
He looked puzzled. Then I relayed the dreaded details, and was ashamed to repeat the insults I had received. Carl Ray remained silent and unaffected at first, but when I told him I had been suspended, he finally spoke up.
“That’s just plain rotten, Junior, real spiteful of them boys.”
“Carl Ray, don’t worry, I’m not giving up the guitar or learning from you. You’ve taught me so much already…”
“Ah, I ain’t worried ‘bout that, kid. I know where your heart is. I’m proud that you made up your own song, real proud of you for that. But I shoulda expressed my worries ‘bout you playin’ it.”
“I got a hard head, Carl Ray. Would’ve done it anyway.”
“I like that ‘bout you. But you know, the whites ain’t ready for this music, they just ain’t. Oh, they’ll come ‘round, I s’pose…” I hoped he was right about that. “But I hate that them boys insulted you and your talent. And that you caught heat from your principal.”
“I’ll be all right,” I assured him.
“I know you will, Junior. Trust me, this won’t be the first time you’ll suffer for your actions, or for what’s in your heart.” Carl Ray wasn’t talking about guitar-playing anymore. “I seen you with your daddy and how you talk about your mama and your pals, and how you act with the fellas here. Your heart is true. You’re a fine young man, and you shouldn’t change no matter what.” I nodded my head. “People can be cruel, son, but you gotta stick to who you are.” I imagined he had suffered for who he was. I was surprised though, to hear the word son coming from Carl Ray.
During the couple months we’d been working together, Carl Ray never got personal with me. He encouraged me in his joking, but strict, fashion, but that was about it. In fact, I knew nothing about his life, except that his wi
fe’s name was Alice and that she made wonderful biscuits. She had sent me some through Carl a few weeks back.
Then Carl Ray’s mind drifted somewhere else and he seemed to be talking more to himself than to me. “Yeah, it’s a mean world. Men can be cruel to their women and parents can be cruel to their kids. They beat ‘em, and even abandon ‘em. The Lord sent us only one daughter, only one, and she done gone and left her son, my grandboy, Booker. He lives with Alice and me. I gotta say, we live for that boy. We don’t know where our daughter is. She ran off with some no-good fella. I know my Alice cries for that girl.”
I never thought about Carl Ray in terms of him having a family, since he only mentioned his wife in passing. He seemed like a good-hearted man, but I couldn’t imagine what he and his family had been through.
“I remember, Booker would cry for his mama all the time when he was a bitty boy. He’s twelve now, but we worry ‘bout him… he carries ‘roun’ the weight of sadness… And them kids at school would laugh at him ‘cause he don’t have no daddy or a mama. I tell ya, lots of cruel things in this world.”
I really didn’t know what to say, but I wanted him to know I cared. “Carl Ray, I’m sorry to hear about your daughter leaving your family. But, I’m sure you and Alice have been good parents to your grandson.”
He nodded a thank you.
“I’d like to meet Booker someday.”
He grinned. “I’ll have Alice bring ‘im here soon. He likes music too. I think he’s gonna be a bass guitar man. But the main thing is, he’s a good boy.” After a pause, he added, “Just like you, Junior Paxton.” The famous Carl Ray smile followed.
“You never know, me and Booker might start a band someday…. Carl Ray’s Boys.”
“I hope I live to see that. Now, let’s tune up.” He then got the attention of the other guys in the club. “Listen up, fellas!” Then he turned back to me, “Come on, Junior, play us that “Paxton Boogie” of yours and me and the fellas will hoot an’ holla for you when you’re done.”
That was the day everything changed between Carl Ray and me. He became more than just a teacher; he was a good man that deserved all my respect and admiration.