✧ 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