“Our Institutions” by N. R. Robinson

Issue 6-1 copy

Imagine Nichols Avenue, because Nichols is where we are headed. Granddad Alvarez does not take the usual Sunday scenic route: through downtown D.C., past the Lyndon B. Johnson White House and the sunburnt, sign-shaking Vietnam protesters. Instead, we hook a right from Randolph Place, and head down straight North Capital Street, past groups of Negroes huddled around bus stops and streaming from Catholic and Baptist and AME churches. My seven-year-old sister, Cookie, stares out at the hubbub. Because nothing will hold still in my nine-year-old head, I clench my eyes and study the glowing red of my inner eyelids.

It is 1965 and Gemini 5 is orbiting the planet. It has been two years since Cookie and I came to rest in the welter of the Alvarez home, a place where days are so unpredictable and like any other that time seems to stand stock-still. Two years since seeing hard-mouthed Grandma rheumy-eyed and wailing, “Lord ha’ mercy, they done killed our President!” And TV images of a white man’s head jerking under a halo of flesh-and-blood mist as his pink-suited companion scrambles over the trunk of their long black convertible. Two years earlier, Grandma signed Mama over to Saint E’s, the city’s government-run loony bin. To be fair to Grandma, Mama was on to her fourth suicide attempt.

This trip to see Mama, like our first trip two years past, is sometime after Halloween but before New Year’s Day. We rumble down into the New Jersey Avenue tunnel, up onto the Southeast Freeway, over the 11th Street Bridge, and into the rising stench of the snot-green Anacostia River. Braking hard into the first exit, we descend onto Nichols Avenue. My anxiety builds through the slow climb up the gradual hill. Where Nichols levels out, a twelve-foot high brick wall ribbons the right of the avenue as far as I can see. We turn into the second gated entrance. Beside the elfin slit-window set into the stone of the guardhouse, a weathered bronze plaque announces: “Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital est. 1855.”

The Oz-like vista no longer surprises me. I could have sworn, back on our first visit, that we were entering some hidden-away fairy town, with ancient street signs set into winding roads leading to dozens of diminutive castles, and small groups strolling paths carved into the snowy slopes of a postage stamp village with a hilltop view of D.C.’s historic skyline.

On that first visit, Grandma mused, “Way back when, Saint E’s was called The Government Hospital for th’ Insane. Yo’ Mama’s docta’ said it was th’ world’s first and largest asylum. Over a hundred thousand been locked away hea’—all types of crazy I neva’ heard of.” Grandma’s minimus moved across the pamphlet: “Manic-depressive an’ phobics; psychotics, paranoid an’ schizophrenic; dis-so-ci-a-tive sickness,” she sounded out, “amnesia an’ multiple personalities; delirium an’ dementia.”

“What kinda’ sick is Mama?” I asked, fear under my affected carelessness.

Following her own thoughts, Grandma said, “The docta’s give ‘em counsel’n.’ But, if you ask me, ain’t no way to fix ‘em.” She told us, “He said they can’t get enough nurses or’ docta’s. Must be why them nutjobs is all nasty and beat up th’ way they is.”

Unwinding that first visit in my mind, I marched up the snow-covered walkway, my rubber-soled sneakers slipping on the slick sidewalk as I examined Mama’s new home. Like many of Saint Elizabeth’s buildings, hers was red brick stacked gothic style. As if some fantastic fortress, the structure had a tall center turret sandwiched between two smaller towers with crenellations along the top. In the keep-like lobby, a guard looked up from his Jet Magazine. After registering our names, he grunted into a black rotary handset and then pointed without looking at an ancient elevator. We jerked and rattled to our destination floor, and then spilled into a cube of a hallway. A small wall sign read: “Ward 3.” Granddad pushed the single button set into the frame of the windowless door and we waited.

As Cookie squeezes my hand this day, I fidget alongside Granddad, standing stiff before that same windowless door. Grandma mutters, “Don’ know why dese people always take so damn long!”

My stomach churns at the now-familiar fecal odor mixed with the smell of urine and Pine-Sol, a biotic stink that creeps beneath the door along with screams and the manic laughter that never fails to whip up fear within me: fear that whatever has touched Mama is budding within me; fear of being consigned to St. E’s and locked in a ward like this.

Mama’s mental illness, as I have experienced it, blossoms from a kind of unwilling hysteria. Because a feeling is a feeling (that cannot be reasoned with), I have decided that my own path to sanity is unemotion. I have deduced that strong-mindedness—control over anger, sadness, and, yes, fear—is the key to mental health. So I maintain my façade of calm through the clanking of the lock turning and the heavy door swinging open.

The four of us push through the Babel of voices into the now-expected semicircle of residents swarming like an audience settling in to watch some unintentional theater; faces expressionless, or twisting in laughter and sorrow; old, young, male, female, Negroes and Caucasians all sporting the standard getup of pale green hospital gowns with tie-strings dangling over exposed buttocks.

Back on that first visit, half-circled by the residents as we are this day, I watched as a thin big-jointed man with Orderly In Charge sewn across the breast of his white jacket shooed the half circle, “Get on now! Go on back to your bus’ness or you ain’t getting no cigarettes.”

We stood in the same cavernous room. To the front and right of the room sat then, like now, a chest-high counter behind which the two other white-jackets casually lounged. The very casualness of those uniformed men in that chaotic setting exuded a certain authority, a sense of inevitability. The nearest white-jacket nodded toward a corner where sunlight pushing through a barred window illuminated a ratty brown davenport and matching easy chair. That part of the room lay at the end of a long hallway punched with cave-like doorways. It was from one of these doorways that Mama emerged.

Before that first visit to Saint Elizabeth’s, Cookie and I had gotten no news of Mama for months, since before her last self-destructive compulsion. Whenever we’d asked, Grandma’d said, “Y’all ‘a find out soon enuf.” But soon enuf never showed up. During those news-less months after Mama’s disappearance, we’d been inconsolable: Cookie’s face leaking tears and emitting a nonstop sibilance; me, withholding my emotions until bedtime when I’d wept then slept and, more often than not, pissed into my thin hard mattress; mornings awakened by cold urine-soaked sheets, a hurried stripping and flipping of the gray-striped pallet, then lugging my mess down to the basement washroom as Grandma followed, “You fucked up my good mattress n’ sheets.” I’d sent out psychic messages. Even, at times, cried out, “Come back, Mama!” But, it was Grandma who’d inevitably answered from her sofa-in-state, “Shut that racket, boy!” Living under Grandma’s thumb took concentration and an odd sort of noncontrol, a kind of surrender, so that the hurt zipped right through, leaving no damage at all. This, at least, is what I believed then.

On that first visit to Saint E’s, mitigating my enthusiasm was the fact that I had no idea what to expect. The very air stood at attention that day. When Mama emerged from one of the cave-like doorways, the in-charge orderly guided her. Knobby fingers encircling Mama’s pale-slender arm, he whispered what I imagined were encouragements as she shuffled toward us in a gait different from the light prance we’d known. Her chestnut hair was electric, her pale skin paler. A hospital gown hung from her thinner-than-usual frame. Most noticeably, Mama’s typically animated façade was as expressionless as the face on a nickel. Incredibly—incredible because it’s difficult to convey how this could be true—Mama was still beautiful.

What was beautiful about Mama on that first visit was the stately manner with which she tried to right herself when she stumbled, and how she struggled to keep her sagging head erect, the slipping gown on her still-elegant shoulders, the feeble but dignified attempts she made to shrug out of the orderly’s grasp. Mama was beautiful in the instinctive way that she, in spite of the circumstances, tried to maintain dignity and a sense of independence.

“Mad’line, you be good,” the orderly said with a plugged-in sort of grin. “I’ll be back ta get you in a few.” He winked familiarly at her, then us, before turning and joining the other white-jackets chatting it up back at the nurse-less nurse’s station.

Cookie threw her head and shoulders into Mama’s lap. “Mommy!”

Grandma trilled, “Cheechee, why yo’ walkin’ round hea half-naked like yo’ ain’ got no home trainin’?”

During the orderly’s instructions on that first visit, Cookie’s hugging and crying, and Grandma’s chiding, Mama sat immobile and placid, as if an invisible membrane sheltered her from the surrounding chaos. Perched at the edge of the easy chair, I watched, torn between wanting to run away from Mama and needing to bury my face between the bumps of her small breasts. Just then Mama looked up; her eyes locked with mine. Even in their dull emptiness, they were the eyes I’d always known. Her contrite-but-porcelain gaze shifted down to where Cookie clutched at her gown. “Hi, babies,” Mama muttered in a soft, garbled voice.

Since that first visit, we have visited Saint E’s a dozen times. Before the first visit, I had barely contained my excitement. Afterwards, I visited reluctantly. When visiting day approached, anxiety built, through the weekend and during those scenic Sunday drives. By the time we topped the crest and at sight of the walls, my apprehension was unbearable.

The Mama who emerges from the doorway on this visit seems abruptly changed: a sudden and imperfect improvisation of Mama. She walks alone. Plump all over—her face swollen, arms and legs dimpled, belly distended—she grins wide when she sees us. Why, I wonder, hasn’t Mama wiped the rivulets of sweat from her forehead, and from the short dark hairs growing above her lip? When Mama squeezes me tight, stink rises, hot, from her armpits.

My life is like that. That is to say, I never seem to catch anyone or anything changing. The universe seems to barely move forward. Time and change are costive, practically invisible. When change does manifest itself, it is a magical phenomenon, like the growth of grass, unseen until the day it is irrefutable.

Mama’s hair is disheveled, but when she looks at me, her eyes are clear. “My baby,” she cackles, then pulls me close. As Cookie tearfully hugs what is left of her, Mama announces to the residents clotting around us, “Everybody, this hea’s my son Nicky. Ain’t he a doll?”

Cookie’s face, inches below mine, is scarlet with love. Forever, it seems, Cookie and I have lapped Mama’s devotion like rich cream. This day, I burn with humiliation. I feel the weight of my mother’s insanity: our no-longer-shocked-treated Mama at home in the ward, speaking to the crazies as if they are real people—as if they are extended family at a backyard barbecue or cheerful neighbors dropping by. I can hear the orderlies chortling. Their laughter is a hammer. I can feel a pounding swell at the front of my brain. I pull from Mama’s grasp, and out and away from the swarm.

“Grandma, can I wait downstai’s?”

“Wha’s wrong wit’ yo’, boy? Go be wit yo’ mama.”

I glance back. Mama is busy introducing Cookie to one of the group. “—And this hea’s Mister Ford, my soon-ta-be husban’.” As the vacant-eyed, giant of a man she is presenting stares off into space, Mama throws back her auburn-curls and brays a wild laugh. I can see silver-gray molars and the pink fleshy teardrop at the back of her throat.

I turn away—shoulders hunched, eyes to the ground—mortified that Mama is locked away in this place and living under these conditions. I burn at the sight of her, treated like a madwoman by people who know about these sorts of things, and at the prospect of these people seeing me the same way. How can she, I think, do this to herself, and to us? How could she have tried to die?

“She didn’ mean it,” Cookie says, as if her thoughts run along identical lines. Cookie can always read my expressions, can almost read my mind. She still believes in Mama. Two years older and wiser, I know better.

That great eccentric, Time, I will discover, is not only coincident with change, it’s the active event of change, some thing that can be stretched: sped up or shortened when filled with the new or interesting, slowed or lengthened by monotony or emptiness. If it had been possible to manipulate time, time control is the magic wand I would have waved as a child.

Over the past two years of living with the Alvarezes, time has seemed inert, with days like weeks, weeks like months, one month of soaring routine, repetition, disorder, inconsequence, and angst identical to the next. It has been an utterly banausic—to the point of drudgery—period when my need for Mama morphed into sudden tantrums, fist fights with schoolmates, a sullen silence my response to the nuns’ reprimands. Then, abruptly expelled, kicked out of Saint Martin’s Elementary, where I have learned I can gobble a page, a figure, a rule, consume whole chapters in a fraction of the time it takes my classmates, a place I have been appreciated, and that I have come to appreciate.

I told myself that getting kicked out of school did not matter. But it mattered to Grandma. She threatened for weeks: “I’m done wit’ y’all monkeys. Let the Orphanage deal wit’ yur mess!” I did not plead for forgiveness as I had before. Over the years, I’ve come to believe that niggles and threats are Grandma’s way. I am changing, I feel, morphing into a newer wiser Nick. It is grass-growing sort of change. No longer a naïf of seven, at nine I know what is what. At nine, I know the meaning of suicide.

“She didn’ actually d-d-do it,” Cookie stammers.

And I know death. The way I figure, suicide is not rocket science; you either do it or you do not. Because of luck or circumstance or ineptitude, Mama has not been successful courting death. But what if she had been?

I see dead animals all the time. Stray dogs and rats flattened like pancakes on D.C. streets, lying lifelessly, regarding the round world one-dimensionally, their innards splattered, a star-spangled declaration of death. Even cats, with their supposed nine lives, are merely mortal.

I recall watching a group of young ragamuffins catch an alley cat and tie it in a burlap sack. Just for the fun of it, it seemed, they set the sack on fire. The cat—writhing, keening, indefatigably alive—fought violently to escape the fiery trap until, at some interminable point, the bag lay still. After those boys danced away hooting and elbowing one other, I examined the sack and the cat up close. There was zero, zippo, nada spiritual about death, I concluded. Death is the opposite of religious, a thing secular and nothing more, almost indecent in its profane physicality.

I wonder why Mama did not do what that cat and all the lowliest creatures of the planet do everyday—fight to live.

Cookie stutters, “M-M-Mama’s gettin’ betta’. Sh-She ain’ gonna try agin.”

Mama is worse. She has tried to die more than once and will try again. During our Sunday drives, I wonder when it was that Mama decided to leave her troubles—and us—for someone else to confront and resolve. I wonder why Mama’s will to live has gone. Maybe someone snatched it away.

“Daddy beat her too bad,” Cookie offered.

But Mama never tried to fight back. Not with Dad, not with Grandma. Even after deciding to kill herself, Mama never faced down death. She is no hero: she never stood in front of a train or jumped from a tall building. She tried to lure Death to her by swallowing a bottle of prescription pills, and then lay unconscious waiting for Him to strike.

I blame Mama for the stain of sadness that has spread through our lives. She hurt Cookie more than me, is what I tell myself. I have watched Cookie’s limitless energy dissipate, hear the fluctuant stutter she has acquired. Cookie, since our first visit to Saint E’s, has grown desperate for Mama, like a junky keening for the next fix. I’ve promised myself that I’ll never be so needy, not for Mama, not for anyone.

The adult Nick will become aware of the battles that raged within on those Sunday drives, clashes between his anger with Mama and his love for her. That he fought against love, fought and thought rather than felt that Mama was a coward. As an adult, I will acknowledge that I wished, at times, that Mama had been successful when she’d tried to kill herself.

“Ma-Mama loves us,” Cookie says. “She loves you more than me.”

I do not love Mama, not anymore. That’s what I told myself then. What was true is that I had not loved her. And because I was fearful of Mama dying, I wanted death and its uncertainty pinned down, rather than drifting loose, like a lost balloon, liable to pop up anytime, anywhere. Looking back, I wanted to put distance between Mama and me.

On that first visit to Saint E’s, I never cried. Seeing Mama drugged and, as we later learned, electric shock-treated, somehow numbed me, too. Still, I was relieved on that first visit when our allotted thirty minutes with Mama expired.

As the orderly in charge vectored away from the counter and toward us, my still-beautiful Mama looked up and mumbled something.

“What you say Mad’line? I didn’t hear you,” the orderly said.

Mama repeated herself, in a low garbled voice, “Excuse me, sir. Did you take yo’ turn wit’ me yet?” At Mama’s question, an unnatural quietness seemed to descend upon the room, the ward’s whole voltage changed.

The orderly, laughing nervously, said, “Mad’line, what you talkin’ about?”

“You know.”

“Why you gonna ask me somethin’ like that?” said the orderly, looking around at us, shoulders shrugging as if to say, “Ain’t she crazy?” as if he wanted to beat the idea of Mama’s craziness upside our heads. “Mad’line, you gonna give folks the wrong idea.”

Granddad and Grandma stared, puzzled, then embarrassed-looking. They never uttered a word.

“What?” I asked, elbowing Cookie.

“What?” Cookie said to me.

Lips pressed together in a white-lipped smile, the orderly hurriedly pulled Mama to her feet, and then he half-walked, half-dragged her down the darkened hall.


Nick R. Robinson grew up in Junior Village, a Washington D.C. government-run orphanage that was once 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, Nick left his executive position at Microsoft to begin the ten-year journey of scribing his coming-of-age memoir, Our Family Walks. Nick is a 2009 graduate of Florida Atlantic University’s MFA in creative writing program, and a 2016 graduate of University of Missouri’s PhD in English Literature program. He has been published in Cactus Heart Press, Santa Fe Writer’s Project’s e-journal, and Bluestem Magazine. Nick is a 2015 Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference contributor, and a forthcoming contributor to the 2016 Tin House and Bread Loaf summer writing workshops. He currently lives in Istanbul, Turkey. You can contact him via email at nickrobi@hotmail.com, or on Facebook via this same address.