✧ Winner of the 2020 Ned Stuckey-French Nonfiction Contest ✧
Selected by Gilbert King
The concussion of distant thunder heralded a rataplan of raindrops, flung pebbles against grimy windowpanes. I checked the wall clock— hours to go before noon. McKinley’s recreation room reeked of teenaged boys: a sour inferno yawning in boredom as we played Tonk and raced Hot Wheels, voices shrieky in the echoing space. During Junior Village visiting hours—from 8 a.m. to noon every Sunday of Richard Nixon’s 1970—my cohorts and I sat sardined in a cottage-cum-emporium where bullies waited for the lucky few with visiting family to kiss and hug goodbye before demanding that they, the lucky, hand over money and candy, clothing and comics. I had no concerns. Nobody—not Mama, not Pops—would be visiting me. From the rec room console, a gospel program blared: a favorite of Mr. Bilkens, the nowhere-in-sight counselor. We had been waiting for the right moment to change the channel. Because Mr. Bilkins had a habit of appearing when least expected, Leon Best, my one and only ace boon coon, sat with me, watching, only half listening to the music.
Shortly after my arrival from a failed Foster-Care stint at Miss Smith’s, I’d met Leon at the single-story rectangle, Garfield Cottage: Junior Village’s former Infant-Cottage-turned-Recreation-Center. Kids swarmed the long narrow space like mice: crowding the two frenzied Ping-Pong tables, sitting sprawled on the scatter of foldout chairs, waiting their turn to play. A boy decked out in a do-rag and I, two stalk- thin bantamweights, were on opposite ends of one of the grasshopper- green tables, swinging our paddles with abandon. On handily winning the match, Do-rag flung his thin, sweaty arm around me and, though we had not officially met, buddy-hugged me to the curbstone outside. Pulling me to sitting, “I seen you before,” he’d said. I remembered seeing him too, our eyes clashing back on my thirteenth birthday, him among the gathered crush of kids watching one McKinley boy fellate another. “Leon Best,” he offered along with his hand, radiating the same nervous energy of his Ping-Pong playing.
Bad, better, Best. “Nicky Robinson,” I slammed back, clasping his offering. That there was when Leon Best, out of the blue, said, “If anybody try to punk you, hit ‘em first.” Who was this kid and why this advice? Walling my eyes, “Why you worried what I do?” “Cause you remind me a’ me when I got to McKinley.” The stranger between us relaxed his grip. Eyewall collapsed, I gave Leon the once-over. Vast noggin propped atop frail frame, he was anything but impressive looking. A gusty, spit-temperature wind cried like kittens and flung gutter dust that stung our faces like bristles of a swung hairbrush. “What if they gangin’ up?” I asked, tasting my front teeth. “Then pick up sump’in an’ crack the closest.”
Leon turned out to be a novelty among kids. Despite his small stature, he was graceful and unafraid. Because of his outspoken nonconformity and independent thinking, perhaps, he had a magnetic pull of his own. I wasn’t sure what he saw in me. Notwithstanding our differences, a kindred spirit, I guessed. “I’m from soufeast,” I said, by way of introduction. “My people from DC too, norfwest,” he responded as we, buddies in the making, at his initiative and my reciprocity, commenced urinating on Garfield, standing perpendicular and at forty-five degree angles, on either side of the rough-painted southernmost corner, gazing up at the clouded sky, peering anywhere except upon the other, moved by circumstance to silence as the trajectories of our urinations (mine, with certitude; his, within reason) buffeted and waving, splashy, in the late- afternoon wind. As we tucked away our leaking parts and ambled up the hill to McKinley, I wondered what wrong turn had brought him to Junior Village. Maybe the same wrong turn that had brought me: being more trouble to family than one’s worth. “You readin’ is makin’ kids mad,” was the second slice of wisdom Leon offered that day, “Some don’ know how.”
The rain fell slantwise, a lyric downpour of pellets against dirty glass. The trick was slipping away unobserved. Once I did, it would be a slice of cake: down the hall, past the tiled lavatory and twin dormitories, then out the front door.
“I’m goin’ soon,” I whispered. “It’s pourin’ out there,” said Leon. But the pouring was the reason I needed to go. My small book collection had followed me from Junior Village to Miss Smith’s and back where they’d laid hidden atop a high shelf in McKinley Cottage’s Clothing Distribution Room. This collection, which would trail me through adulthood and grow to a library of thousands of hardbacks, was fewer than twenty-five paperbacks and comics that day. Because the dorms of Junior Village were a jungle, because I was afraid my books would be discovered, I’d buried them in a box in the woods only a week before, sealing them in an industrial- strength plastic bag. Now I waited like a shrub for the inevitable disruption: voices raised over a disputed possession, a shove over a resented glance. Within minutes, two squared-off buddies began cutting up, hurling jonses at one another, grinning widely, loving the insults until they didn’t anymore. A crowd of boys gathered. “Niggah, your mama so black, she make night look like day,” the tall one taunted. “Your mama so black, she leave fingerprints on charcoal,” his buddy shot back. “Shiii-itt, your Mama so black and ugly, when she was born the doctor slapped her face.” With everyone’s eyes on the joners, I held out my hand, palm up. Leon slapped me five. With that touching of hands, I made my move toward the door. “Hey, white boy, where you headin’?” It was a radio-announcer voice, and the question, I knew, was aimed like a pistol at me. I lengthened my stride. “Four-Eyes, you betta get back here before I slap you with this Hot Wheel track.” The voice belonged to Cochise Roberts, the victimizer of the bully who, back on my first stay at Junior Village, had ripped my Spider Man. Cochise, at seventeen, had ladder-like legs and the longest gait I’d ever seen. I was not about to run.
Fig 1: Junior Village’s Predecessor Institution - The Industrial Home for Colored Children, SE Washington DC
Fig 2: Layout of Junior Village
Fig. 3: Nick and Junior Village Best Friend, Leon Best
Fig. 4: Cookie, Junior Village
Fig. 5: Mama, St. Elizabeth’s
Fig 6: St. Elizabeth’s Predecessor Institution – the Government Hospital for the Insane, SE Washington DC
Two days prior, that Friday morning past, I’d tried to ignore the braided voices of children shouting, the driver’s calls of “We’re leaving Junior Village in five!” over the rumble of idling buses that would take kids to the “Outside Schools.” Inside, crowding the small cottage office was a wooden desk in the center of which lay open a thick manila folder with “N. Robinson” printed in neat block letters. I waited. I was not curious. I had been shown the folder contents. Nick and Karen Robinson, 14 and 12. Parents divorced. Mother, Madeline, 29, schizophrenic, committed Sept 1963 to Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital for the mentally ill. Junior Village residents since Nov 1966, the two have had multiple unsuccessful Foster-Care Program placements, including with their estranged father. Staff have located no other family willing to take them in. Nick and Karen are abnormally close. They have tested at the above- average and superior I.Q. levels—Karen at 115 and Nick at 149. Nick, emotionally guarded, is aloof and timid with boys his age. With adults he is aggressive and intellectually boastful. He has a history of absconding. Karen is sexually promiscuous and the leader of several girl toughs in her cottage. Nick and Karen insist on being placed together, significantly increasing the difficulty of finding an acceptable home for them. “Sorry I took so long,” snorted Mr. Surrey, my social worker, six-foot two frame lumbering into the autumn-chilled space. He slumped into the worn-smooth wooden seat beside me. “I’m runnin’,” I said. “What about Karen?” “She’ll understand. She’s run more than me.” Nodding reasonably, “You’re still uncomfortable at the big boys’ cottage, McKinley. Why don’t you report what’s happening?” Mr. Surrey and I had known each other over a year. We had grown close. But he knew this suggestion was worthless. “If I tell, them boys’ll be locked up in Timeout for a day or two. When they get out, my ass’ll be grass.” “Then you have to be patient,” said Mr. Surrey. I understood that he did not believe I’d run away. Breathing his signature double snort, “This situation isn’t going to last forever.” The buses belched as they pulled out, rattling down the plateau, engines clearing their throats as they strained up and out the valley towards the Outside: as in, I hate those Outside school kids; as in, Mr. Surrey is taking his plaints to Outsiders. Mr. Surrey had submitted affidavits documenting McKinley’s staff- and boy-on-boy battery to Junior Village administrators. No response.
After sharing the affidavits with several of the boys’ court-appointed lawyers and asking that they speak with their kids, not a single one had. Mr. Surrey, I knew, was frustrated. What he said was, “Last week I spoke to my dad.” “And?” “And, we’re going to sue!” he shot back. “Dad told me to do what’s right. We’ll start with Merriwether, that pigpen where they sent the Fern brothers? Once we get a judgment, we’ll take on Junior Village. One step at a time. So, hang in there!” I shook my head in despair. The I.Q. test shared with me by Mr. Surrey was proof that I was not, as some counselors promised, “ . . . just another knucklehead.” But even as I was blooming (my view of myself, my intellectual potential), my options (Saint Anselm’s and Miss Smith’s), had withered on the stem. While Mr. Surrey was presiding over his lawsuit, what was I to do? “You missed the bus,” Mr. Surrey said. “Come on. I’ll drive you to school.”
“What?” I whistled, sidling back to Cochise, eyes hinged in Leon’s direction. I was surprised when Leon motioned me to play it cool. I surmised that he wanted me to roll with the situation. Cochise and his group, his gang, his pack—Blyther, Prince, Antonio, and Big Boy—were arrayed in a circle, sniper style, around an ovoid Hot Wheel track. Two spoke in unison to me: “Wha’s up?” Cochise asked, as if we were meeting by happenstance. “Slap me five, lil’ man,” Blyther drawled, standing and stepping to me. “Nuthin’,” I said to Cochise as I reached to slap palms with Blyther. With great dexterity, Blyther, brown-skinned and ginger-headed, snatched the paperback peeking from my back pocket. “Psych!” Blyther cried. As the squad heaved in laughter, “Bookreader!” he accused, then tossed the evidence to Cochise. “Come on, give it back,” I pleaded. Cartoon-sized raindrops pounded the rec room windows. “Look at this shit,” Cochise said, displaying the book cover: “Edgar Rice Burroughs, Back to the Stone Age.” Hums of derision and complicity. “Why all the time you readin’ and tryin’ to be white?” Cochise asked, passing the book. “I ain’ tryin’ to be white,” I said, face clenched. “I’m Negro, like y’all.”
“Niggah, don’ be signifyin’; you ain’ nuttin’ like us. How you gonna be when your white, book-readin’ ass don’t even know we ain’ Negroes no more?” I was struck dumb by Cochise’s observation.
In a way, it was true. As I’d tried to render myself invisible by reading, social change had passed me by: Negroes had turned Black, the way Colored had turned Negro years before. But I did remember: the WOL AM radio-voice of Petey Greene, “The System’s hustling us backward!”; and WTTG Chanel 5 beating me numb with news of folk dropping like flies, brown and yellow folk, mostly. Because memory is a packrat, I recalled Black Muslims declaring war on America; Angela Davis in chains on the cover of Newsweek; King’s Civil Righters surrendering to the Black Power movement. By 1970, black pride was saturating America, like blood. It was around this same time that I began to wallow in the muck of my own African ancestry. I prayed for it to shine through, like a radiant family jewel. I wished for fat lips, a broad nose, the wooly hair of my sub-Saharan antecedents. I pleaded to God in Heaven to make me glow blue-black like my forefathers because I wanted to walk unseen. I tried to fit in, as Karen somehow had. But I was not Karen. I was not a throw-up-the-dukes fighter like her. And I wasn’t funny or fast on my feet; I could not dance and was not a joner. White Boy was what they called me. Though I denied complicity—“I’m a hundred percent Black!”—I was part white. And so I became the chameleon who changed his hue as others changed their manner or mood with every new approach.
Cochise quipped, “Listen to this back-cover shit, Carson Napier faces the supermen and super-monsters of Amtor.” As his gang guffawed, Cochise, in an apparent change of heart, extended the book to me. Suddenly, without warning, he began to rip the pages. Keeping to Leon’s advice, I kept cool. As I bent to the fluttering fragments, Cochise taunted, “Yeah, white boy, show us dat ass. We wanna see what’s for dessert tonight.” “Nick, you causing trouble again?” asked Mr. Bilkens, materializing from nowhere. Pulling myself erect, “Naw, just headin’ to the lavatory.”
“Get on then,” Mr. Bilkens said. That and his “You boys, get on back to your Hot Wheels,” signaled an end to Cochise’s ambush. I shot Leon a last glance, a look of relief and accomplishment and profound appreciation. Leon’s look back had Respect! written all over it. And that was everything. I fled the room and ran like a deer from McKinley, down the hill, past the Recreation Center, and into the autumnal winter woods. The recent rain was a memory of wet on dead grass. I stopped and studied my surroundings. Bare boughs as far as the eye could see. Hand-sweeping the ground of rinsed husks and leaves, I chanced another look around. Motes in the apple crisp air. The heady smell of pine. Pushing aside a rectangular wooden board, I reached into the muddy hole and hauled out a wooden box. I pulled open the lid, unknotted the plastic bag, and inspected the contents. It was as if a rainbow had arched down from the celestial kingdom. My books were safe—damp and warped, but readable. Warm in the second-hand flannel under my coat, I sat in the lap of one rain-rinsed birch fallen across another. Soughing trees wrapped around and under me, alone and reading, I did not know that I was happy. What I felt was peace. Reading was more than just Staying Out of Harm’s Way. I adored my books for their quiet lines of print; for their odes of beauty, death, treachery, hope, the impermanence of despair; I loved the rage of Bigger Thomas pouring directly into my soul. I sought out every variety of book: paperbacks, for their stealthy transportability, hardbacks for their weightiness, the fat novels of Hugo and Melville for the respect they earned me: “You gonna read all that?” I nodded my way through Sartre’s Troubled Sleep to prove my intellect. I devoured the lean works of Bradbury and Burroughs, Van Vogt and Vonnegut because, digested, I was set to swallow lands of kings and cavaliers in crenulated castles; spies, seducers, sorcerers stalking backstreets and bazaars, the blaring of trumpets over hundreds of hooves clattering, a bleeding sun drowning in the blue-green Mediterranean. With the books I loved, I dreaded The Conclusion. The awareness that everything I had grown to adore was about to disappear was unbearable. So, I liberated from libraries works that seemed interminable: Les Miserables and Oliver Twist. I swiped series: Tolkien’s Rings, Ann Rand’s Anthem, Fountainhead, and Atlas Shrugged, Herbert’s Dune and Dune Messiah. I masticated those tomes, swallowed and digested them until they were my flesh and blood. Books were the family I no longer had.
The temptations in those volumes unplugged me from life. They enabled me to endure the tedium and violent loneliness of Junior Village. Reading filled every spare minute of every day I had spent praying to God to protect me from the bullies; from the handiwork of foster parents and the counselors and boys of Junior Village; from what I did not know then as the relations of power and the transformation of children by counselor- and boy-vampires into things less than human.
Bone-chilling cold snapped me out of my woodland reverie. Dusk swallowed the fuzzy letters on the page. Day’s precious light was evaporating, eaten by evening, bit by tiny bit. I did not want to leave my woodland feast. I was not ready to face Cochise and his gang. But was I ready to haul around my books till kingdom come? As I was weighing this question, I recalled the look from Leon—Respect!—and felt an odd charge, like I was seeing me for the very first time. And that’s when I decided my great escape would have to wait. That’s when I tucked Thunderball into my overcoat, put on my James Bond face, and began the trudge through blue and grey twilight toward McKinley. Anxiety returned, step by chilly step. It began to snow. In the almost- darkness I stopped and, tilting my head, focused on the cold flakes dissolving wet and warm on my face, in my mouth, on my tongue. I watched white fall from the snow-leached sky, soft and slow, then faster, covering every tree, snowflakes falling upon every withered square of grass in the world. I concentrated on the wet taps against my skin. I did not want to consider the evening ahead or what tomorrow might bring.
N.R. ROBINSON grew up in Junior Village, a Washington D. C. - based, government - run orphanage that was the oldest and largest institution of its kind in America. A ninth-grade dropout, he earned a general equivalency diploma and graduated from the University of the District of Columbia. N.R.’s work has been published or is upcoming in Southeast Review, Memoir Magazine, New Ohio Review, Iron Horse Literary Review and elsewhere. A graduate of the creative writing programs at Florida Atlantic University (2009, MFA) and the University of Missouri (2016, PhD), N.R. is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Claflin University and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.