Issue 9 / Spring 2017
When our front door came alive one night with an explosion of knuckle knocking, it moved me from one level of exploration to the next. It was January of 1964 and every radio station in the city seemed to be spinning back-to-back Beatles. Months of more-than-kissing Darlyn and Sondra had done nothing to dampen my curiosity about sex. If anything, I was more curious than ever. I needed to see for myself what Mama was doing.
It was black o’clock in the morning when I awoke to an urgent banging at the front door. Mama moved sleeping Cookie from her room to mine. The front door lock turned and Daddy’s voice moved with Mama through the apartment. We hadn’t seen him in months.
I eased my room door open to the furious dancing sounds coming from Mama’s shut bedroom—shoeless shuffling, dry-leather scuffling. Telling myself to Do it, do it, I shouldered her door and put my eye to the line of light.
They were in profile: Daddy’s crooked smile pulled down in what I recognized as a drunken grimace; Mama’s back against the wall, arms extended, her thin palm, fingers spread, against Daddy’s broad chest. She managed to tear away. Free hand tucking a loose strand of hair behind an ivory ear, she whispered, “Earl. Please. Calm. Down.”
When Mama put those measured words on Daddy, he shot back in one long slur, “Oh-I-gotta-beg-for-it-now?” His face was as hungry looking as the hungry sounding voices. Body lean and strong, he was a tan-muscled Lex Luther.
“Come back tomorrow an’ we’ll talk. An’ you can spen’ time wit’ th’ kids, too.”
“Yeah, and I’m a dumb nigger,” puffed Lex Luthor with Daddy’s crooked smile. He folded his arms around her and they toppled to the bed.
What I remember from that night are Mama’s eyes fixed in a glare of sad terror. Her pleading, “We can’t, the children—” then lying motionless as her face began to jerk and twitch the way Cookie’s did when she was about to cry. Her mouth opening in a small, round, hopeless expression, stretching wider as if to yawn, and when Daddy’s hand clapped over the yawn, Mama’s eyes growing huge, platter-like, like some wrestled-down calf about to be branded; and me feeling sick to my stomach. I did not understand the black dots dancing before my eyes, why thunder and lightning raged in my brain. I came to with Mama bending over me wailing, “Wake up, baby!” tears in her eyes, me startled by the smell of fresh urine and warm wetness in the Fruit-of-the-Looms I wore. Then seeing Daddy’s face, not Lex Luther’s, behind Mama wearing a wrinkled look, as if to say, “What kind of boy faints and pisses hisself?”
At seven, I did not know my father well. I did not know my father and mother had been tenth graders at McKinley High School when they’d met in September of 1955—she sixteen, him not quite. I did not know Mama had become pregnant with me two months after, or that Dad had falsified his birth certificate in early ‘56 to join the Army, to support his future wife and unborn child (the paratroopers, because they paid a dollar extra per day). I did not know my parents were children of sixteen when I was born. By all accounts, that boy who would become my father was someone I have never laid eyes on: a loving, thoughtful, committed boy-man who put the welfare of his child- and bride-to-be before his own. A model soon-to-be dad.
When Dad returned from paratrooper training, he’d accused Mama of having an affair with his army buddy, their next-door neighbor. He told me later that he’d beat her then because she’d cheated on him and because he loved her. He’d beat her later, because, separated or not, she was still his wife and she was still cheating. “He hits me ‘cause he can’t find work, and ‘cause I won’t go back wit’ him,” Mama told her mama, Grandma Alvarez.
My father, Earl Robinson, was a proud second-generation Washingtonian. He and his father, Preston, had seen D.C. grow, change: they’d seen the spectacle of tens of thousands of Negroes tumbling into our nation’s capitol from the Deep South, only to find the same Whites Only signs, the same historical terrorizing of brownness. Dad’s disciplinarian father was the product of his up-from-the-South-but-no-longer-hopeful street-walking Negro mama and one of her regular johns, a slick Italian import. My father’s mother, Grandma Robinson, had shared the family history with Cookie and me: Granddad had left her and their passel when Dad was a just a boy, too.
My father loved us, his two children, I want to believe. He would have been eaten up by love, and by rage as, undereducated and unemployed, he faced the prospect of plunging through life choice-less while wrestling with the legacy of his father and his never-known father’s father. As I think back on Dad drunkenly pounding our door, I imagine him grown to hate every living soul in America, including us, his kids whom he could not feed or clothe, and who despised and loved him, too.
Awakened by Dad’s pounding, Mama must’ve known that if she let him in, she was in for it. But she flung open the front door. The day after Dad’s rampages, we’d sometimes head out for a family walk. At the end of the walks Mama would sit us down and walk away. She might or might not swallow a fistful of pills. When she did, she’d be hauled off to D.C. General, the poor folk’s hospital. Someone would take notice of Cookie and me and they’d call the cops, who’d drop us off at 57 Randolph Place. Grandma Alvarez’s address was a scar on my brain. She hated me, because I wasn’t white, like her. In my desire for clear heroes and bad guys, I felt hatred for her, also—alongside my hatred for those Royal Ass Whippin’s she promised, and delivered. Within weeks Mama would bus herself back home to I Street, damaged but on-mend. She’d call Grandma, who’d bus us home, too.
I watched my mother collapse under all th’ providin’ she had to do. Raising two young children, alone and sick, diagnosed unfit for her typing job at the Navy Yard. As inevitable as rainfall—three or four times a month—I marched with her across the street to Saint Paul’s, sat with her in the gloomy womb of the chapel looking up at the crucified body of Christ, looking at anything but her as she apologized, “I shouldn’ be askin’ agin so soon—,” then begged young Father Patrick for food or hand-me-downs or a spare dollar bill or two.
Mama, Cookie, and I all went about our business that morning after Daddy’s visit. I knew from the marks on Mama’s face and throat that I had not been dreaming; I had not been dreaming because Mama was in her familiar fugue-like state. In an after-haze of my own, I tried to identify the feeling following me around. It was shame, I know now. I was shamed that I’d stood, watching, as Daddy hurt Mama.
I tried to put that shame out of mind. What I could not forget, what I could not figure out was Daddy calling himself “A dumb nigger.” Mama always said Daddy was “Too smart fo’ his own good.” But since he had called himself a dumb nigger, I couldn’t but wonder back then if that made me a dumb nigger, too.
That very night of this day of shame the world shifted. Mama stubbed out her Salem Light that night and shuffled off to bed. She didn’t mention dinner. After Cookie and I choked down our choke sandwiches, Cookie wandered off to bed, too. And I had the apartment to myself.
Cookie is spitting little sleeping sounds. Mama’s breathing is soft and regular. Darlyn’s knock at the door is a caress. Truth be told, I had long since given myself up to those two sisters, Darlyn and Sondra, as one does to the warmth of a hot bath. This night we three convene under the sheet-covered kitchen table, our bodies splayed, an oval of flesh.
“Nicky, lie between Sondra’s legs. Open yoa’s.”
“Lay ur head on her leg while you do it. Like on a pilla’.”
Mama snatches away our cotton walls. In the brittle silence she stands, almost studious, examining us. “Y’all get out from unda’ thea,” she whispers. As we scramble for shirt-skirt-pants, our sin against God lies exposed. Mama looks at me as if she has never before seen me. Darlyn and Sondra scuttle out the front door. Mama—pulling pants over slip, shoes over bare feet, coat over bra—mumbles, “Get dressed, we walkin’.” When I hesitate, she shrieks, “Get movin’!”
Without intending to, I shout back, “Me an’ Cookie ain’ goin’ on no more fam’ly walks!” The words radiate in the open brittle space—the way I said them to Mama, the fact that I said them. I could not have taken such a chance if I’d known then what I know now: that Mama, thereafter, would never again live with Cookie and me.
The next day the bells of Saint Paul’s pound me awake, I yawn, still sleepy, realize it is morning, Mama is not back from her walk without us, I wait, though I know she does not come home from walks so soon, not lately, I wait and know that we cannot stay at 321 I. Peanut butter on dry bread. The water tastes of strife.
“Come on, Cookie.” 57 Randolph Place Northwest is the address—Grandma’s house. We have walked with Mama the three miles to Grandma’s before, it’s one long zigzag, I can find it, can find Grandma. Cookie and I quit 321, we warm as we walk, down I Street, right on the next block, what’s that sign say? Third Street, “Cookie, hold my hand. An’ don’ be no crybaby!” across Virginia Avenue, under the freeway, past Garfield Park, across E Street, there’s the liver-colored brick of our school, Saint Peter’s. School’s starting. “Run Cookie. Don’t let ‘em see us!”
I remember growing up with Mama and her mumbling at thin air.
“Who you talkin’ to, Mama?”
“To th’ angels, baby,” as if they were plain as a doorknob.
Those were times Mama hardly got up from bed, barely bathed and cooked, rarely talked—to us, at least. I liked when we started getting the monthly disability checks. I cashed them at the J Street Market, bought food. I did not like Mama swallowing pills, I did not like Mama at D.C. General. I liked when we were all home again, even if Mama was still sick; sick Mama had moods, personalities, we knew them, had come to expect them: the franticone, who took us on family walks, the sexy-flirtyone, who got ready for the visiting-voices, the weepingone, the wailing, the constantly sleeping, the calm one preparing creamed eggs, the Mama broken after Daddy’s visit. Cookie and I lived with all of Mama’s selves.
We cross North Carolina Avenue, still a ways to go, the wind whistles as we dash across Pennsylvania and then Constitution, string-straight avenues populated by banks and blocky federal buildings, the neighborhood is changing, from Negro to white, almost all white, a Negro or three mixed in, like the odd dark kernel on a pale cob of corn. The uniform is suits, suits marching all around us, uh-oh, a suit asking; “No! We don’ need no help, Mama waitin’ across th’ street.” We run, walk, turn left on Massachusetts Avenue, close on marbled Union Station, flags whipping and flapping in the wind, Cookie does not cry.
“I’m cold, Nicky.”
“We gettin’ closer.”
Here is the white dome, Our Nation’s Capitol they call it on Channel 5; the city does not feel this day like our nation, turn right, walking up North Capitol Street, getting closer to Grandma’s, nowhere to go but Grandma’s, across H Street, no more white folk, Negroes everywhere, Negroes gathering outside the check-cashing joint, in front of the liquor store, inside of the Gino’s on Florida Avenue, is it lunchtime? I’m hungry, I want a Gino’s Giant, a KFC chicken box! Keep walking, plodding to 57 Randolph.
On this walk, as on our last family walk September past, we start in a measured cadence. As the day wears on and we grow tired, we lean forward, as if by leaning forward we’ll get there quicker. Cookie and me slogging through a black-and-white world altering itself, a comic book world of narrow streets turned wide, squat tenements transformed into tall buildings, whole neighborhoods moving and morphing as we tread-lope-scuttle and the world changes around us, Negro to white and back again, from one variation of ghetto to another, surrounded by faces: smiling faces, thoughtful faces, distracted faces, hard faces, concerned, sad, abject faces not noticing us walking; all things—objects, people, the earth even—rising and flowing past, changing.
On this walk, I notice the people, I mean I notice the difference between people, between the well- and poorly-dressed, the bedraggled, the undernourished living in holes churning with children—all of us dumb niggers is what I think—and the fine people (and when I think fine I do not mean the odd, dark kernels of Negroes), fine folk wearing fine-fitting suits and dresses with fine jewelry at their sleeves and necks and fine-fitting coats and shoes and driving fine cars.
There they are. I see the fine people so plainly, going in and out of their fine homes in their fine communities, and I see the difference between the people who own the fine things and those I now realize are dumb niggers who do not own anything, and I know I have seen all of those people and things before, but I see them, newly, like I was taking a trip back the way I had come, through the same place, seeing the same objects, the same people through a different backward perspective, or maybe that backward perspective was the way I should have seen things from the beginning, perhaps that backward perspective was the only way to look at things; and I see how the fine people look at the dumb niggers but rarely see them, but when they do look and do see them, it is full on, with anger or impatience or with apathy or pleasure or disdain, and I notice, and this is when I get it, in a bright, categorical, unequivocal eruption of insight—I notice how the fine people sometimes look at the dumb niggers but they only begin to look at Cookie and me, and I think back to how they always only began to smile or not smile at white-looking Mama and us, and I suddenly get how their faces changed in the middle of beginning to look and smile/not smile, changed to quizzical or concerned or alarmed, and I re-look in my mind at our little non-nuclear family and I see us anew, maybe the way people have seen us from the start; I see us at a distance—two white kernels with one brown, one nigger with two-not—I see our family in a way I never had before: I see our family is mixed, and I re-examine my memories of Mama and her lank, sweat-clustered hair and Mama’s perspiring, astringent face talking to the angels—talking to herself really—teeth gnashing with her pretty slanting eyes wild and her porcelain skin flushed and her beautiful swan neck stretched and venous and I know something has not been right, like those people knew, I know something is wrong.
I think back to Cookie and me left behind by Mama on our last family walk, alone and sitting on the curb, and people not seeing us until a policeman did, and him asking, and me answering, “I don’ know where Mama at,” and I remember the way he looked at Cookie and me, and I know now that we were something to feel sorry for, I know that I have been innocent, I know I have known no better, I know that, in thinking we could tumble about the earth scot-free, I have been gullible, childishly simple, frankly naïve. I remember looking into the mirror after being dropped at Grandma’s following that last family walk and I see now in my mind a magnification of Cookie’s and my dusty, tear-streaked faces and our uncombed hair and passed-down clothing, and I know I do not want to us be almost looked at, or, when we are looked at full on, I do not want us to be looked at in that pathetic way, I do not want to be pathetic anymore, I do not want us—not light-bright-damn-near-white Mama and Cookie nor butterscotch brown me—to be dumb niggers, and I realize that I have been afraid, more afraid of the future than of the present or the past; afraid of that almost-look, which is why the night Mama caught me and Darlyn and Sondra naked, when she told me to “Get movin’!” I was astonished when my mouth opened and out came “I ain’ goin’ on no more fam’ly walks,” but then I begged, “Mama, don’ leave,” because I was terrified of Mama abandoning us again, but Mama left and I did not know until she did that I was actually less afraid of being left behind than I was afraid of going with Mama. I was afraid of walking in Mama’s footsteps.
Sometime in the far-flung future, I will see that my mother had been ill—in the mind, as they say—since before I could remember. During our aimless wanderings, I became aware, in a real and personal way, of an ongoing struggle for humanity, a struggle I’d only caught glimpses of in black and white television images of riot and suffering and murder. Laid over humanity, I will know, is the idea of race, which carries a weight in this world, an asperity that bore down my ancestors, and, in its many manifestations, helped crush my father and mother, and could also crush me.
Across Florida Avenue, we trudge. I do not want to go to Grandma’s, but Mama is gone and Cookie and I are rootless, three more blocks, we walk, dodder, lurch along, in step with nothing and no one: Q Street, Quincy Place, R Street, maybe Grandma is not home, Grandma is always at home, there it is, Randolph Place! turn left on Randolph. I see number 13. One foot after the other. “Cookie, we almost thea’.” Now 27. Hungry. The sun flays. 43. I wonder where Mama is. I wonder, Am I to blame? Here we are. 57. I put my knuckles to Grandma’s door.
R. Robinson grew up in Junior Village, a Washington D.C. government-run orphanage that was the largest institution of its kind in the United States. A ninth-grade high school dropout, he went on to earn a general equivalency diploma, graduate from the University of the District of Columbia, and work in corporate America. In 2006, N. R. left his executive position at Microsoft to begin the ten-year journey of scribing his coming-of-age memoir, Our Family Walks, from which “Our Family Walks” is excerpted. He is a 2009 graduate of Florida Atlantic University’s MFA in creative writing program and a 2016 graduate of University of Missouri’s Ph.D. in English Literature program. N. R. is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Claflin University. He has been published in Cactus Heart Press, Santa Fe Writer’s Project’sMonthly and Quarterly, Bluestem Magazine, and New Ohio Review. N. R. was a contributor at the 2015 and 2016 Bread Loaf Summer Writer’s Conferences and the 2016 Tin House Summer Workshop. He can be contacted at https://www.facebook.com/nickrobi or firstname.lastname@example.org.