Issue 8 / Winter 2017
“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 her careless face, and in the blue-veined hands that wandered as she spoke. Too young to understand, Cookie’s puzzled 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 seemed purposeless. Or perhaps I did not see then their purpose. 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 what would be our last family trek across D.C., a quarter million folk marched on Washington, protesters were beaten in Birmingham, and a U.S. 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. It was late afternoon when Mama crooned—face demure, fragile, resolute—“Don’ worry babies, th’ 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.”
O ctober of ‘63, just weeks after that last family walk, I turned happy. Partly because of the new comic book addition to Marvel’s line-up of superheroes: “Tales of Suspense #39: Iron Man!” And because Mama, Cookie, and me were all back home and I’d convinced myself that our walkabouts were part of the past.
“Can I have eight cent, Mama?”
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 asked.
At twenty-three, Mama was beautiful in an unintentional way, and delicate, like the china display 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 American Indian 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 Daddy. Quarter-inch spectacles blew up my eyes to ten times their normal size. “Mister Magoo,” Cookie teased.
“We ain’ got a nickel ta’ spare, baby.”
Same as always, I thought. No money for nothin’ but The Basics. Home was I Street southeast, a welfare neighborhood tucked blocks away from the walled D.C. Navy Yard. 321 I—across from our breadbox chapel, Saint Paul’s—was one of a phalanx of three-story low-rises 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 low-rises, scraggy bushes grew. Mamas ripped away the branches to lie against truculent backsides.
As Cookie chanted behind me, “Niiicky le’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. My mind wandered back to the day of our last family walk: sleepy morning protests, “Mama, why we gotta’ go?” Afternoon complaints, “How come we walkin’ so far?” And just yesterday, Mama sitting stone-faced as I asked why she’d left us, and where she’d been for a week. Our sun-beaten walks were something she wouldn’t 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.
I wanted to forget Mama’s walking binges as easily as she seemed to. 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. They arrived, as he sometimes did, after Mama put us to bed. She must’ve known they were coming, because on those nights, Mama lay Cookie to sleep in my room with me. As soon as we settled in, 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 ta be concentratin’ on yur school work.”
On this day, over Cookie’s droning, the alley beckoned: children shrieking and clattering over transistor radios blaring WOL, D.C.’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 yo’ uniform, an’ stay where I can see you.”
I escaped to the I Street alley, a concrete horseshoe littered with rusting automobiles and overflowing trash bins and, after 3 p.m., with kids riding bikes and playing tag and cheering on the 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. At twilight Mama beckoned, a portrait set in brick, her slender voice calling, “Nicky, get on in this house.”
On Mama’s good nights, she 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 crumpled 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, lay down. You suppostabe dead!”
“I’m tired of dyin’. Why can’t you be th’ 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.
Because I did not, back then, consider Cookie clever, I put the mystery of the voices to my first-grade buddies at Saint Peter’s. The four of us—Timmy, Bebe, Stinky, and me—elbowed our way across a schoolyard crowded with recess. We conferenced in our favorite brick and asphalt corner.
“Swear,” I insisted.
“Honest to God” and “Cross my heart, hope to die,” they declared, hands blurring in the sign of the cross. We formed a protective circle against the schoolyard din and I described the late night visits: voices sliding behind Mama to her bedroom, the whispering clothing, bedsprings groaning 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, dem voices is men, visitin’. Yo mama’s havin’ sex!” one of them 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. I was taunted for weeks until some new escapade bulldozed my own. I still felt fried. Maybe because I was bewildered and confused by the so-called sex my mama was having.
Sex happened in private, I knew, between adults. Sex was a sin and the people who did it had babies. What I was desperate to know was: What happens during sex? Was Mama going to have a 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, full-sprung out of thin air.
T he night before their abrupt arrival, Mama called it an early evening. Cookie and I forced down our choke sandwiches (thick slabs of peanut butter-and-nothing-else on government bread) then drifted off in front of the television. When Mama stroked our sofa-creased faces awake the next morning—Saturday, it was—the night had spawned new voices that penetrated, along with the cold and the gray, the thin walls and frosty windows of my bedroom:
“This th’ place!”
“Help Uncl’ 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 flooded through the brick walls and into our apartment. When I yanked the front door open, two barrette-ed heads were racing up and down the stairwell, around the tall and medium boxes blocking the hallway landing, under a pancaked stack of wall-leaning mattresses. When the barrettes spied me standing in the doorway, they stopped and stared.
Gray outside light mixed with the harsh yellow from the hall’s single naked bulb.
“Hey,” I said to my two to-be neighbors.
“Hey ta’ you,” the taller one replied.
I looked the girls over. The taller one—the one as skinny as a hat rack and black as soot—had a double row of short white teeth. She was almost as tall as Mama. The other, the milk chocolate-skinned one, was bulldog-ish, from her wide face and flat broad nose down to her squat torso and stubby arms and legs. Both girls had plump-cherry lips and hair done up pickaninny style with a dozen or so 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.
“Got eight cents?” I asked them.
The girls looked me over as long and as hard as I’d looked at them. 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 tall and the squat one looked at each other and broke down laughing, as if what I’d said was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Through snorts, the tallish girl giggled, “Wit’ that high yella’ skin and straight-curly hair, you ain’ no Negro. Look’it them skinny lips of yoa’s.”
“Say it agin’ and I’ll punch you,” I said without thinking. Mama says that no matter what anyone says about our skin color, we’re just as Negro as any other.
The two girls stopped giggling. When they looked at each other, serious, I knew I was in for it. I was about to get jumped, get whipped, right there in the doorway of my apartment. Instead, the tallish one, digging deep into her dungaree-ed front pocket, came up with a shiny dime squeezed between the thumb and knuckle of her forefinger.
“Ain’ got eight cents,” she said, then flipped the coin my way. Holy Mary! I thought. How’s that for luck?
That same morning, I introduced the two to the I Street Alley. Not long after, I dragged them and Cookie to the J Street Market where I purchased “Iron Man!” and a cluster of black-licorice sticks that the four of us shared. 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. Much of our play took place beneath the collapsible table with adapted-for-four fantasies of Superman rescuing Lois Lane triplets.
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 full and long on the lips. I mean, Darlyn really let me have it. I remember chapped lips and her syrupy clear-tasting spit in my mouth. Then Sondra took her turn. During those long 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. That was when I contemplated how best to exclude 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 a rescue.
Lip kisses turned to tongue kissing. As we grew more daring we grew more circumspect, too, looking for opportunities to kiss when our mamas and Cookie were napping or grocery shopping. Tongue kissing led to neck sucking, and, when Darlyn suggested nipple licking, I didn’t mind. Next came dry humping and it was Darlyn, not me, who decided to take it out and put it in.
“Nicky, stop moving.”
“Owww! It hurt when you bend it like that.”
“Wait a secon’!” Darlyn cried. After sitting her Ka-Boom on my Shazzam, she moved her bony hips until Sondra, with a “It’s my turn,” pushed her sister aside.
By this point, our play was off limits to Cookie. When she sulked and circled us, I hissed “Beat it.” When my sister complained, Mama shooed her, “OutChouGo.”
Left alone, Darlyn, Sondra, and I romped under our cotton-sheeted cosmos where we, with grubby fingers and nails, swiftly shed our clothing, reveling in trapped-in odors of ammoniac sweat and hot bubblegum breath, of sneaker feet and soft farts, touching and feeling with fingers and lips, arms and flanks thrashing and flailing. Then, over as abrupt as we began, jumping up and throwing on our musky garments as fast as we’d discarded them.
I told myself that we were doing nothing wrong. We were adventuring, is all. And, truthfully, 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 or birthing of babies, no searing rages or bloody jealousies. There were not even groans of pain or moans of pleasure. The only sounds I recall are workmanlike instructions to “kiss this,” “lick that,” “lay here,” “push there,” “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. It even crossed my mind that we were committing 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 had crept in her bedroom and smelled it—sex—a moist, cloying odor. Maybe this was my excuse for having sex, too.
“Our Family Walks: Part 2” releases May 1, 2017.
N. 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’s Monthly 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.