*Featured Artwork: “Unhinged” by Billy Kornbluth
The Following is An Excerpt from
The Memoir Prize 2021 Honorable Mention:
“Our Family Walks” by Nick R. Robinson
An Unpublished Manuscript.
“Y’all are hungry,” Mama said, no question in her downcast whispery voice. “I’ll be back quick.”
There was something definite behind the distraction in Mama’s careless hair and in the blue-veined hands that wandered as she spoke. Too young to understand, Cookie’s bewildered brown eyes darted back and forth between Mama and me; road dust clung to the stubby shanks bracing her small, stout frame against the backdraft of vehicles roaring past. Cookie was weeping that day because I was.
That autumn of 1963 people were walking, and we were among them. But our walks felt purposeless. Or, I did not then see their purpose. Mama took us out at all hours. Not to shop at the grocery store or to visit family, but simply to walk. It felt like she was running from something, escaping someone.
I barely knew it, but ‘63 was a dangerous time to be wandering the heat- and frost-blazed roads of America. Over the months surrounding that last family trek across DC, a quarter million folk marched on Washington, protesters were beaten in Birmingham, a US President was assassinated in the street.
When Mama called our aimless ambles anything, they were “our family walks.” We strolled hand-in-hand that September day, just weeks after my seventh birthday, Mama on one side, five-year-old Cookie on the other. Mama waving off my sleepy morning protests, “Why we gotta go?” and “How come we walkin’ so far?” In the late afternoon, she crooned—face demure, fragile, resolute—“Don’t worry babies, the angels are beside y’all,” then walked away. Because I’d learned it was useless to protest, I pulled Cookie to the sidewalk curb. Snarling cars and trucks belched heat and grit in our direction as we watched Mama flicker and fade down North Capitol Street. Before she left, I’d searched her eyes. She was telling the truth, I decided. I promised Cookie, “Mama comin’ back this time.”
Mama did come back, but days later. Our sad apartment sighed in quiet relief. That October, weeks after what turned out to be our last family walk, you could even say I was happy, partly because of a new addition to Marvel’s line-up of superheroes in Tales of Suspense #39: Iron Man! But mostly because Mama, Cookie, and me were all back home and I’d convinced myself, as I always had, that our walkabouts were part of the past.
“Can I have eight cent, Mama?” I asked, just arrived from school.
Mama’s eyes fluttered, as if she hadn’t heard my key turning in the lock or the clap-to of the door slamming shut. “How’s that?” she said.
At twenty-three, Mama was beautiful in an unintentional way, and delicate, like the china dolls Cookie was forever begging after: skimmed-milk-colored, swan neck adorned with chestnut locks. When she flushed a weary smile, Mama’s eyes narrowed to twinkling slits. Anyone who’d ever met her called her exotic. She called herself mixed: Negro, Caucasian, and Native American from her mama’s side, Spanish and Filipino from her daddy’s.
“Eight cent, Mama. Please?” Butterscotch-colored beneath my tangle of curls, I was an admix of Mommy and our mostly missing-in-action Daddy. Quarter-inch spectacles blew up my eyes to ten times their normal size. “Mister Magoo,” Cookie teased.
“We ain’t got a nickel to spare, baby.”
Same as always, I thought. No money for nothing but The Basics. Home was I Street southeast, a welfare neighborhood tucked blocks away from the walled DC Navy Yard.
No. 321 I—across from our breadbox chapel, Saint Paul’s—was one of a phalanx of three-story low-rise apartments stretching as far as my bespectacled eyes could see, door-less structures boiling with Negroes: old folks and mothers mainly, caring for broods with part-time daddies. In the short yards fronting the brick low-rises, scraggy bushes grew. Mamas ripped away the branches to use on backsides.
As Cookie whined behind me, “Niiicky, let’s play!” I tramped through the living room, into the cubbyhole where she and Mama slept, in and out of my squish of a bedroom.
Cookie’s whining brought me back to the day of that last family walk. Just yesterday, Mama had sat stone-faced as I asked why she’d left us behind for the police to find and figure out, and then drag us to Grandma Cavazos’s. Again.
“And where you been for a week?” I asked.
But those sun- and rain-beaten walks were something Mama would not discuss, or even acknowledge. It was as if they didn’t exist for her until they happened. Afterwards, they were erased from the blackboard of her mind.
With no eight cents for comics, the I Street alley beckoned: children shrieking and clattering over transistor radios blaring WOL, DC’s soul channel, The Marvelettes, Playboy get away from my door, I heard about the lovers you had before…
“Mama, can I go?”
“Change out’a your school uniform, an’ stay where I can see you.”
“I wanna come,” Cookie said, rotating around me.
I escaped Mama and Cookie to the I Street alley, where there might lie an answer to our walking mystery. What I found was the usual: a concrete horseshoe of an alley littered with rusting automobiles and overflowing trash bins and, after 3 p.m., with kids riding bikes and playing tag and cheering on the occasional afternoon fight. The alley was a whir of every-shade-of-brown beanpoles hauling rock-loaded Radio Flyers, and fire-engine-red pogo sticks springing over broken glass; a blur of nappy-headed girls skipping double-dutch and playing hopscotch and hipping hula hoops in the garbage-laced afternoon wind.
Time flew. Behind our skipping-playing-hulahipping, a burning sun began sinking over the edge of the planet. Directly above me, from the creamed-eggs smelling world that lived behind our alley-facing kitchen window, Mama’s slender voice summoned: “Nicky, get on in this house.”
That night Mama prepared our favorite meal, creamed eggs over toast: flour, water, salt, and pepper all whipped together in a heavy, cast-iron frying pan, two hardboiled eggs sliced in last. She poured this concoction over bread snatched hot from the broiler, crispy tan on one side, white soft on the other. After dinner she permitted thirty minutes playtime, time when a thin sheet tossed over our collapsible kitchen table made for a transmutable playhouse: the tower where The Monster (me) and Frankenstein (Cookie) battled to the death; the cave where Superman (me) defeated the evil Lex Luthor (Cookie) and rescued Lois Lane (also Cookie); the spaceship where Flash Gordon (me) pursued a host of space invaders (all Cookie).
“Nooooo, lie down. You suppostabe dead!”
“I’m tired a dyin’. Why can’t you be the alien an’ I be Flash Gordon for once?” Cookie pouted.
My sister, Karen, was called Cookie because all the block said she looked good enough to eat. I used truisms to describe her: pink-skinned and straight-haired (like Mama), rock-stubborn and biscuit-y-smelling.
“Cause Flash Gordon’s a boy, stupid,” I shot back with a shake of my head.
Cookie, like Mama, seemed to forget about our family walks the minute they were over. I wanted to forget Mama’s walking binges too. On the days I managed, memories of the voices rose up inside me like a persistent bellyache.
Voices haunted our apartment. None were Daddy’s. But they visited, as he sometimes did, after Mama put us to bed. She must’ve known they were coming, because on those visiting nights, Cookie slept in my room with me. As I crawled toward sleep, I’d hear knocks then a voice trailing Mama through the apartment. I woke up hard those nights. Afterwards, I couldn’t make peace with myself. Mama deflected my questions: “You need to be concentrating on your schoolwork.” And concentrate I did, but on the arrested development of my home life.
Though I know they must have, I don’t remember Mama and Daddy living together. I only ever see Mama, Cookie, and me. And Mama’s hugs and pleas.
Occupying my body as much as my mind is the helplessness I felt as, hugging Cookie and me, the phone nestled between her shoulder and ear, Mama pleaded: with her supervisor for “—more sick time” from her Navy Yard Clerk-Typist II job; with the social worker during her permanent sick leave for “—more food stamps”; with young Father Patrick of Saint Paul’s for “—just a few dollars, to help us through the week!” Mama’s hugs were soft little prisons of pleading. Because Cookie stayed home with Mama days, she was more imprisoned than me. Cookie didn’t seem to mind.
Mama enrolled me in first grade. I recall feeling in my chest the creepiness of school, Saint Peter’s Elementary, “Est. 1868”: The embedded white stone cross that seemed to levitate between the second- and third-story windows and above the red brick entrance. The cluster of uniformed grace-saying children: a city of pious kids in the grip of a gaggle of black-clad nuns that smelled like tree bark and fallen leaves. The oak-stained hallways and mildewing lockers; the cold classrooms with ghostly echoes and stuffy cloakrooms and closets.
I began appreciating the autumnal nuns and their dour lessons about a semester in, along with what I’d taken as fool’s gold: geography, science, math (and reading, which had always been my salvation). I came to understand that there were worse places than Saint Peter’s. I made friends on the raucous school playground: Timmy, Bebe, and Stinky during what became twice-a-day meet-ups on the strip of asphalt adjoining Saint Pete’s. These were boys with whom I pitched pennies, traded comics, and played our favorite game: a timed race to find and exterminate the school’s villains—the multitudinous cockroaches, spiders, and water bugs. To establish bragging rights, the winner collected and presented the most smashed and mangled carcasses.
They were my first confidents, my first friends, Timmy, Bebe and Stinky. We told each other stuff, mulled over troubles. I knew enough to know not to share our family walks. But the visiting voices, they were something else. Because I was still puzzling the problem, one windy October afternoon, I put to my friends the mystery of those voices. We elbowed our way across a schoolyard crowded with recess to our ‘conference room,’ a brick and asphalt corner. We sat on our haunches conferring in winter coats.
“Swear,” I insisted.
“Honest to God” and “Cross my heart, hope to die,” they declared, hands blurring in the sign of the cross. Forming a protective circle against the schoolyard din, I described the late-night visits: voices sliding behind Mama to her bedroom, the whispering clothing, bedsprings groaning along with Mama in complaint.
“Then them voices disappear.”
We stood staring at each other for long seconds until those boys burst into laughter. They laughed in that hard, knee-slapping way that three boys laugh at another one.
“Stupid, them voices is men, visitin’. Your mama’s having sex!” Timmy cackled. First those three friends, then every kid in the schoolyard was catcalling, “Nicky’s mama’s havin’ sex!” I felt something fry behind my eyes. Running did not help. Because I had few ways of relieving my pent-up feelings, I did what felt natural: raced home and took an afternoon nap.
The night of that same catcalling day, Cookie and I choked down our choke sandwiches (slabs of dry government bread with peanut butter-and-nothing-else). Cookie drifted off front of the old rabbit ears as I sat ruminating: Sex happened in private, I knew, between adults. The priest said unmarried sex was a sin and people who did it had babies. What I was desperate to know was: What happens during sex? Was Mama going to have another baby? And was Mama a sinner because she was having sex with men that were not Daddy?
During this muddle is when Darlyn and Sondra appeared, fullsprung out of thin air.
When Mama stroked our sofa-creased faces awake the next morning—Saturday, it was (because cartoons were on later that day)—the night had spawned new voices that penetrated the thin walls and frosty windows of my bedroom, along with the cold and the grey:
“This the place!”
“Help Uncle Butch unload the van,” a second voice shouted. “Stack the furniture in the hall.”
A smaller voice, “I wanna help, too!”
A bumping and a stomping, a squealing and grunting pushed through the brick walls and into our apartment. When I yanked the front door open, two barrette-ed heads raced by and down the stairwell, around the tall and medium boxes blocking the hallway landing, and under a stack of wall-leaning mattresses. The barrettes spied me standing in the doorway and stopped and stared.
Grey outside light mixed with the harsh yellow from the hall’s single naked bulb.
“Hey,” I said to my two to-be neighbors.
“Hey to you,” the taller one replied.
I looked the girls over. The taller one—as skinny as a hat rack and black as soot—had a double row of short white teeth. She seemed almost as tall as Mama. The other was bulldog-ish, with stubby arms and legs. Their hair was done up pickaninny style with sections parted, like tilled rows of farmland within which short shrubs of steel wool were gathered then plaited and rubber-banded and clamped at the ends with an assortment of those butterfly-shaped barrettes.
They seemed to be waiting for me to say something. All I had was: “Got eight cent?”
Ignoring my question, the tallish one asked, “You Injun or sompin’?”
“Nah, I ain’t no Injun.”
“What are you then?”
“I’m Negro like y’all.”
The two girls looked at each other and broke down laughing, as if what I’d said was the funniest thing they had ever heard. Through snorts and giggles, the tallish one said, “With that high yella skin and straight-curly hair, you ain’t no Negro. Look’it them skinny lips of yours.”
“Say it again and I’ll punch you,” I retorted without thinking. Mama says that no matter what anyone says about our skin color, we’re just as Negro as any other.
The two stopped giggling, and looked at each other, serious. I knew then that I was in for it. I was going to get jumped, whooped, right there in the doorway of our apartment.
I braced for combat, prepared to defend myself. Instead, the tallish one dug deep into the front pocket of her dungarees and came up with a shiny dime squeezed between the thumb and knuckle of her forefinger.
“Ain’t got eight cents,” she said, then flipped the coin my way.
Holy Mary! I thought. How’s that for luck?
That same morning, after cartoons, Cookie and I introduced the two to the I Street Alley. A bit later, we went over to the J Street Market where I purchased a handful of black-licorice sticks that the four of us shared (and one copy of Tales of Suspense #39: Iron Man! that I greedily devoured.) The tall one, Darlyn, was eleven. She took to me immediately. Sondra, nine, took to me, too. Within hours, the four of us were playing. Within days we were wrestling and touching tag in the I Street alley, hiding and seeking in closets and under beds. Eventually we invited them under the collapsible table, to join in our superhero games.
It was beneath that table that it happened one night. During a daring rescue of those three damsels in distress, Darlyn exclaimed, “You saved me, Superman!” and kissed me long and hard on the lips. Then Sondra tried too. During those seconds of smooching, I wasn’t sure if I should say or do something. So, I just kneeled there and took it. Cookie, puzzled by this turn of events, turned and ran, screaming, “I’ma tell Mama!” The three of us tore off after her, shouting, “We gonna git you!” and kissing devolved into a game of let’s-catch-Cookie.
I didn’t think much about those kisses until they happened again. When they did, seven-year-old me contemplated how best to exclude five-year-old Cookie from our play. Darlyn, meanwhile, had shed her damsel-in-distress role, trading it in for a sooty-sexy Wonder Woman routine during which she led Sondra and me into new and exciting adventures. It occurred to me that she had done this before—kissing, I mean. But I was no innocent. There had been occasions—after an especially difficult rescue, for example—when I’d grabbed Cookie and kissed her the same way Clark Kent kissed a surprised Lois Lane under the mistletoe at the Daily Planet’s Christmas party. Cookie, I think now, considered our kiss, but not Darlyn and Sondra’s, a natural conclusion to rescue.
With the girls’ father MIA—“We don’t hardly never see him”—and their manytasking mama working day and night it seemed, Darlyn and Sondra were their own best caretakers, chaperones, and supervisors. They spent their afterschool time in and out of our apartment. Mostly in. And as we three grew more daring during our play, we grew more circumspect too, nosing about for opportunities to kiss when Mama and Cookie were napping or grocery shopping. By this point, our play was off limits to Cookie. When she sulked and circled us, “Beat it,” I hissed.
Cookie caviled, but Mama shooed her, “OutChouGo.”
Left alone, Darlyn, Sondra, and I romped under our cotton-sheeted cosmos where we, with grubby fingers and nails, reveled in trapped-in odors of ammoniac sweat and hot bubblegum breath, of sneaker feet and soft farts, touching and feeling, arms and flanks thrashing and flailing. I may even have wondered whether what we were doing was ‘sex’.”
But I told myself that we were doing nothing wrong. We were adventuring, is all, like Clark Kent and Lois Lane. And, truth be told, there wasn’t much to it, certainly not as much as the schoolyard talk had led me to believe there would be. There was no falling in love, no searing rages or bloody jealousies. The only sounds I recall are workmanlike instructions to “Kiss me,” “No, like this, not like that,” and so on.
Still, I was aware from the beginning, back when Cookie ran off yelling “I’ma tell!” that I did not want Mama to know what we were doing. As our antics continued, I began to feel a general anxiety about the prospect of getting caught. In the puppet theater of my mind, our kissing and hugging was a sin against the Church and God Himself.
But I told myself that we could do it, because Mama did. If I was a sinner, Mama was a sinner too. Not only had I heard her, I’d crept like a cat burglar into her bedroom and smelled it, air drooping with a moist, cloying odor: sex. Mama’s libido (and my buddies’ laughter) nudged me across a frontier. She (they) was my excuse for wanting sex too.