I had done my second girlfriend wrong. I was still doing her wrong as I sat in the bedroom waiting and wondering whether she would hear my page over the blare of airport announcements, the shouts of friends spotting friends and family greeting family. But why did it matter? I asked myself. Deep down, did I care? In my best imitation of the super hustler, Superfly, I muttered, “Hell no.” I told the worse-than-empty room, “She shouldn’t have come.”
It was the summer of 1975, and time crept in the heat-laden room where I sat cradling the phone and reckoning with my eighteen year-old self. Penny, girlfriend number one, was out running a few final errands. Her aunt was still at work. I had moved into their cramped apartment just four weeks before. The ruckus rising up from D.C.’s North Capitol Street – the furious traffic, the fussing children – intruded on the silence of the coma-hot afternoon. The stark white-on-black numbers of the night table clock radio slapped slowly forward, tiny droplets of time – “:06,” “:07,” “4:08 PM.”
I’d learned from personal experience that life was hardscrabble. Pops always said, “Shit that don’t kill you will only make you stronger.” That second girl of mine would be stronger after today; that’s what I told myself. Still, I needed to hear her voice again.
“I’ll continue ta hold,” I told the operator.
I was supposed to have been at the airport to greet her, all buffed and spit-shined: sprouting afro picked out and patted even, platform-ed shoes wiped clean, flowers in hand. Instead, I’d unpacked and repacked Penny’s and my scant belongings, recounted the few ducats we’d scraped together, and reviewed our own travel plans. First thing in the AM, Penny and I would be splitting D.C. by way of Greyhound bus—destination, Toronto, Canada, the primary terminus of America’s draft-dodgers and AWOL-ees.
In spite of my resolve to focus on my escape, I found myself thinking back to how she must have felt on the flight up: anticipation mixed with hand-wringing anxiety, jubilant but timorous as the landing gear slammed down. She had to be in a panic by now.
“Wheaa you aaaaat?” she wailed through the handset, voice shrill, drawl more insistent and vulnerable than I remembered. I laughed in sheer relief that she was still here.
Before this day, the farthest she had ventured from Millington (a backwater known for its land-locked naval base) was the twenty-odd miles to big-city Memphis and back; Memphis, with its banjo-plucking whitefolks and Jheri curl-wearing soul brothers and sisters; a pig feet-and-chitterling-eating Memphis tucked deep into the southwestern corner of the not-so-great-state of Tennessee; a Memphis sandwiched between hillbilly Arkansas and redneck Mississippi (I had never visited either, but, I’d read enough Faulkner and Hurston to know which was which.).
At the time I was possessed of a contempt, which most Not-Southern black folk shared, for the geography that had enslaved for hundreds of years our antecedents. But if I disliked Memphis and the Deep South on principle, I couldn’t blame her for being the girl she was, for being a ‘bama – named for that most backwards of backwards-y states, Alabama. Not one of us, I knew, had a say about where we’d been born. But ‘bama was what citified niggers like me called countrified niggers like her. She’d be the first to say that she was country – she dressed country, talked country, she even smelled country (earth-reeking, and smoky, like the Tennessee outside, not perfume-y like the girls at home) – living, as she did (always had) in tiny Millington, in the heart of Dixie. Sixteen-years-young, she had never boarded a plane before that day, had never been more than a Hey ya’ll! away from friends, relatives, her momma. Now here she was in the real big city, in our nation’s capital; here to visit me, except I was nowhere to be found.
“Sorry. SORRY!” I whispered, then barked, into the mouthpiece. And when she continued her bawling: “Relax! I had a flat is all. Couldn’ get to a pay phone.”
“I been waitin’ here fo’ hours,” she choked. “I wanna go ho-ome.”
“Calm down gurl. Everything’s cool,” I said sturdily, with a bravado I didn’t feel, the same bravado she had fallen for during our first flirtation (“A bold, skinny, high-yella boy wit’ good hair,” she’d confided, was the impression she’d taken away from that encounter.).
After a few final hiccup-y sobs, she sighed and sniffled, then, between sniffles, exclaimed, “I called Momma, collect. She say th’ operator couldn’ find no D.C. listin’ fo’ no Nick Robinson. She worried sick.”
Ignoring her unasked question, I replied, “Tire’s all changed, ride’s ready to roll. Soon as I hang up, I’ma be on my way.”
“You prAW-mise?” she drawled. I could tell by the hint of honey seeping into her voice that she was starting to settle down.
“Of course I promise. Now, sit tight. I’ll be pullin’ up at National in fifteen minutes, tops.”
I remember some of her, some of the details of her, but I can’t fully reassemble her, can’t make her whole no matter my efforts to conjure her image. I don’t even remember her name, can’t even guess at it. I do remember that she was wide-nosed, plum-lipped, and burnt-toast-complexioned with a round basketball booty, like all those cornbread-eating Tennessee girls had, but tallish and slender in the frame (and as I might have said back then), just the way I liked them.
It may seem remarkable that I can recall these specifics but not her name. Maybe it was because I had grown accustomed to people drifting out of my life, most of whom were better forgotten; or maybe I wanted my old self to stay disappeared. Whatever the reason, she – What was her name? – the essence and humanity of this half-remembered girl now summoned forth into the present – had singularly jogged my memory. Because of the lingering residuum of our brief ghostly relationship, guilt, or a new resolve to know myself, the past took shape and became strangely solid, instigating this journey back through time.
During that summer of ‘75, as the eighteen year-old me tried to calm the sixteen-year-old her through the miles of telephone wire that connected us, I could picture her. I remember fragments of that picture, but with the soft focus attending memories of a memory.
In my imagination she gleamed, like a new nickel: ashy skin rubbed shiny with Vaseline, wiry-nappy hair parted into sections and pomaded and rough-combed and hot-ironed straight then rolled up tight by her momma or her aunt or any one of her many sisters the night before; in the morning, brushed and draped and sprayed and clamped with dozens of itty-bitty hairpins until her dull tight coils of steel-wool were magically transformed into a shiny beehive-of-a-helmet that hovered, stiff, around her face – an exact replica of Tammy Wynette’s ‘do when she sang “Stand by Your Man,” except burnt-coffee-colored not blond.
I could picture her dressed to the nines in a hand-me-down version of the usual Memphis-y mauve or lime-green dress with matching mauve or lime-green purse and shoes. I imagined her clomping off that plane all dolled up and smelling of Murray’s Pomade-fried hair and Johnson’s baby powder, and breathing a sweet Juicy Fruit-y scent out of her flaring nostrils, ready to embrace her eighteen year-old city-slicker of a boyfriend, Nick, a dude she hadn’t seen in six weeks, a cat she had known for barely a month before being told by him, “I ain’t diggin’ this scene,” before being advised by her new beau that he was splitting, going Absent Without Leave from her and Hicksville Tennessee, AWOL from the U.S. Navy and Millington Naval Air Station.
Tennessee was where I had been shipped three months prior, following my graduation from the Navy’s version of boot camp. The summer before, I had strutted into a downtown recruiting office. After waxing eloquent about signing up but before sitting down to their exam, I had challenged the Petty Officer-recruiters—a pair of Laurel and Hardy lookalikes sporting bright chest-ribbons of honor and glory—by staring unabashedly into their earnest-looking faces and asking, “What’s th’ highest-scoring position?” They’d shown me their teeth. I’d shown them mine.
If I seemed confident that day, my confidence was calculated. The draft had ended a year before, in ’73, and it was clear from the sleepy office and the recruiters’ earnest eagerness that folk weren’t exactly lining up to join Uncle Sam’s Navy, not with the Vietnam War still officially underway. I had convinced myself that I was in the catbird seat with nary a worry about being shipped off to war; those recruiters needed me more than I needed them. But my assertiveness that day was not solely attributable to these circumstances. My blustery demeanor was an integral part of what I had come to think of as the new and improved Nick.
Over the last several years, I had transformed from a diffident, comic-book-stashing adolescent into a young man inspired by the wise-cracking slick-talking soul brothers who were the latest movie sensations: the master lover, Sweet Sweetback; the coke-dealing super pimp, Superfly – not the mild-mannered Virgil Tibbs. Because I wanted to be like them, I had affected a garrulous irascibility that didn’t quite fit my jocular loose-jointed self. When I wasn’t looking, my book-smart-ness had morphed into an acrobatic verbosity that was the backbone of jone-ing – playing the dozens was what Pops called it – the socio-cultural art of insulting and being insulted until one of the two jonsers quit, from anger or frustration or humiliation (I liked to start with, “Yo’ mama so cheap, instead of a fire alarm, she hang Jiffy Pop on th’ wall.”). And, though I detested the acrid taste and smell of burning tobacco, I had taken to smoking Kool Menthols, because smoking is what cool brothers did, and cool was what I thought I needed to be.
Like those film-star heroes of mine, I was good (enough)-looking – cute was what girls called me: tall enough at 5’9, and at 135 pounds, fence-post thin, with sharp features (for a soul brother) and light-complect-ed. I’d been called Redbone or High-yella’—the quintessential disparagement for the 70s black man—since I was old enough to understand an insult: insults I began to reconsider when I heard Superfly called Redbone too.
I adopted my father’s crooked smile and his indomitable swagger. Through a persistent application of vinegar and raw eggs, I “trained” my parted and brushed-flat Boy Scout ‘do into a pick-able Jim “The Dragon” Kelly-style afro. Like my film-heroes, my few vines—my single pair of bell-bottoms and two patterned, polyester shirts—were fly; my lifted-from-Lansburgh’s eyeglass frames (with the new, thinner prescription lenses) were the latest aviator-style. I had even learned to talk with a deep-voiced lazy rhythm that affected a disdain for the perilous twists and turns of ghetto life. I told myself that I was capable—if not comfortable—mingling with the meanest of society. And, if I didn’t have the bread, the quick cash that those movie-dudes had, because of my threads, my affected style and cool rhythm, I had my share of chicks, broads – that’s what we called girls then.
This new-and-improved-me was starting to feel genuine. Sometimes – times when my new identity paid off as planned (with a new pal, a fresh chick, after bullshitting my way past an ass whipping by some tough) – I felt like one of my movie-heroes. Other times I questioned where all the blustering was taking me. Wars raged within me, mini-Vietnams, battles between the still-library-book-reading-Nick and the new, fly version of myself. Despite all of these changes, however – or, maybe because of them – at almost eighteen I was desperate for opportunity, desperate for something.
One of the Petty Officers, the skinny Laurel-looking one glistening in his summer-whites, repeated my question, “The highest scoring position? Well, that’s got to be Nuclear Sub Tech, right?” he asked, glancing over at Hardy. And, just like that, Nuclear Submarine Technician was what I wanted to be. Despite a youth plagued by a fear of tight spaces, I longed to technician aboard a US Navy Nuclear Submarine as it dived, hot and close, miles beneath the ocean’s surface, because only the tip top-est Navy enlisted men were qualified to do this job. And accomplishing something, anything at all, was what I wanted and needed to do.
When I returned to the sleepy recruiting office several weeks later, I was greeted by the hearty congratulations of the two Petty Officers: the skinny one, Laurel, squeezing and pumping my hand as the plump one, Hardy, bellowed, “Mr. Robinson, consider yourself a qualified Aviation Electrician!”
Confused, I repeated, “Aviation Electrician?”
With cheerful commiseration, Hardy divulged, “You scored just below qualifying for NuclearSubTech. Aviation Electrician is the second-highest scoring position.” Or maybe he told me it was the third- or the fourth-highest. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Having never stripped a wire, never installed a socket, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in August, a few days after my eighteenth birthday. Six days before Christmas, I was marching in loose formation with a ragtag of newly enlisted squids past vast rectangular signage that read, “Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Aviation Fundamental School.” Three and a half months after that, in mid-April of ‘75, the hot concrete of Millington’s Naval Air Station was burning beneath my feet.
Millington was where I met her, in a Millington park or some Millington shop or as she was lollygagging through Millington’s excuse-of-a-downtown with a gaggle of girlfriends. Maybe.
I’m guessing about where, but I know when. I met her a few weeks after my arrival at the air station. It was a Saturday. I remember because I’d been out lollygagging myself the evening before, Friday night, the night of my first payday. This was the night that my new Puerto Rican roommate, Oscar, decided to buy me some down-home Millington pussy; that was exactly the way he put it. Being a big-city boy, I knew nothing was free. I wondered whether his alleged generosity was some sort of initiation: a test of manhood, maybe.
I confess, the idea of having sex with a prostitute terrified me (some of this fear I attribute to my concern with not living up to the standards my father had set for me), although I considered myself at least as experienced as most my age. I had had something resembling sex at the most precious age of seven—under-the-kitchen-table trysts during sleepy Sunday afternoons with the eleven and nine year-old sisters, Darlene and Sandra. I had felt up a couple of girls in ninth grade. And I’d had rip-off-her-clothes-but-don’t-look-in-her-eyes coitus with as many girls over the ensuing years, as a high school dropout and a runaway from Junior Village, D.C.’s government-run orphanage. Then there was my first love, Penny.
Thinking back, I was also intimidated by the imagined prolificacy of a professional: fearful of being stacked up and measured against the whole Navy and Marine Corps who had laid siege to her. I was, after all, barely eighteen and still trying on for size the blustery-self-confident-Nick. But, what kind of man—so my mind went then—turns down free pussy? That was how and why I’d ended up in front of the thin print curtain in the hideous one-room hovel, the hut, the almost lean-to that was one of a warren of hovels/huts/almost-lean-tos that littered the unpaved dirt roads of Millington’s old Negro ghetto.
Millington: The sun’s unrelenting gaze and the thock-thock-thock of helicopter rotor blades chopping the shimmering heat; screaming fighter jets zooming up from the earth’s surface; the thud and squeal of whining aircraft landing amidst tarry effluviums of Goodyear-melt marking long concrete strips; jets taxiing in clumps, waddling like geese toward squat giant aerodrome hangars where engines belched and ticked and buzzed like dentist’s drills, and exhaust spewed and pilots climbed out of and into their craft: the infinite Quonset hut and hangars from which mini-scooters and motorcycles, buses and bicycles rushed to and fro, racing around and past thousands of pedestrians purposefully striding, sailors marching in waving flag-like formations, where men and women scurried frenetically from one long aluminum edifice to another, ants in a grand concrete and aluminum symposium of activity.
Millington Naval Air Station was a behemoth, a bustling giant of a place, even for a big-city boy like me. At thirty-five hundred acres, it was the world’s largest inland naval base, a cosmos-of-a-complex designed and constructed to train air and ground crews in the operation and maintenance of the Navy’s sea- and land-based aircraft; Millington Naval Air Station was where over twenty-three thousand naval students – mostly male, mostly young recruits like me – rotated annually.
I waited in the prostitute’s hovel, my sun-darkened face blank, spine pressed flat against the raw, inside-front wooden wall, two or three Lilliputian arms-lengths away from the suspended curtain and the slapping-spanking sounds beyond it, the sounds of Oscar desperately attempting to awaken the flesh of the tired-looking woman who had greeted us that evening: the battle sounds of fornication, of fucking, of flesh and bone smacking flesh and bone, the sounds of a young man attempting to suck pleasure from the crevices of a woman doing everything in her power to bring him to climax with all the dirty heatless words and sounds and movements she could muster. I knew she had won when I heard his long moan followed by her cry of satisfaction, more like concluding a battle than orgasmic bliss. When he exited the back of the hovel with a grand flourish of the curtain, it was my turn.
“Come on, baby, off with them clothes,” the tired-looking, freshly lipsticked woman murmured, naked, from the stained pallet laid across the floor. “Don’ be shy.”
The air had an amoniac odor. The woman—I don’t remember her clearly, except for her painted lips and the sight of her cracked fingers curling—gestured, and I recall thinking, I can’t do this. As I began to disrobe, I imagined Oscar on the other side of the curtain. I thought of him waiting and listening as the woman pulled me onto the pallet. As her cracked fingers kneaded me, I could hear the cries of intoxicated men moiling about the warren’s hovels. I told myself, concentrate! I thought back to how lonely I had been over my first weeks in Millington: the stretched nights and persistent thoughts of Penny: her gap-toothed smile and ingénue-eyes, bronze-d breasts and the feel of my fingers slipping into deep salty femaleness. Just when I seemed to feel a twinge of responsiveness, a trickle of lifeblood in my unresponsive self, that hard-working, hard-looking woman – she had to have been thirty-five, at least – muttered something impatient-sounding, and I lost that skirmish with myself.
To her credit, the woman was persistent. She pulled a diminutive square from beneath the pallet, tore open the cellophane packaging with her teeth, centered the opaque circle between her lips, then skillfully, using her tongue and lips, slowly unrolled the translucent membrane down and over my limpness until she swallowed me whole. I could feel the warmth of her mouth through the membrane, the pressure of her lips her thumb and forefinger holding the rolled end of the condom firmly. For minutes, it seemed, she crouched over me, mouth working, head bobbing in a persistent pecking motion.
“Wait,” I pleaded. As I wiped the wetness running down my face, the woman looked up at me, lipstick smeared, her no-longer-neutral face peering into mine. It was during such instances, when my dignity had been battered beyond what seemed endurable – after one of Pops’ cane beatings or during his abuses of my sister and mother – that my younger self had typically erased himself, blacking out, one minute there, the next not, a fragment invisible.
But the new-and-improved-Nick wouldn’t permit such indulgent self-erasure.
I reached under the inside padding of my right shoe then pushed my emergency money – a folded twenty-dollar bill – in the woman’s direction. She accepted my offering without protest or thanks or any suggestion that she’d already been paid. As I tugged at my skivvies, the low snickering recoiling from the floorboards and the rough wooden walls and through the sheer curtain waving in the thick invisible air, told me that Oscar had overheard my capitulation.
He and I left the place without a word, joining the teeming mass of men disgorging from the huts into the searchlight of the southern moon, hovel and tenement voiding a ragtag of black and white, yellow and red into lane and alley, men hauling their spent selves back to the bustling aluminum and concrete hive of Millington Naval Air Station.
Later that evening, as Oscar snorted and stretched like a snake, I lay in my bunk tracing the lines in the splintered ceiling. I lay in a bunk similar to the bunks in which I’d spent my youth – bunks at Junior Village and Auberle Home for Boys – bunks within which I’d fought off the nighttime forays of other sad and hungry boys and, afterwards, lain awake tracing similar lines in similar ceilings as I prayed that destiny would carry me to a more benevolent place. I lay in the bunk watching the familiar ceiling descend and collapse, trapping and smothering me in memories of those hungry nights, and of that night: memories of my flesh shrinking, betraying the slick-talking tough-acting me.
I lay awake thinking there was no excuse for my ineptitude. Hadn’t I learned from the best, from Pops, who had insisted when I was eleven that I “Be a man.” But I hadn’t a clue what being a man meant. I can see Pops lecturing as he lounges, gladiator handsome, on our folded-up sofa bed. “Length is okay,” he says, “but what females really want is a fat dick. Women like fucking. But men, especially Negro men, need to fuck all the time.”
In spite of my hatred for him, over the years I remembered these words because Pops was the quintessential man. Pops knew women. He had lain with and benefited from the good graces of more women than any man I knew, including those macking movie-star heroes of mine. And I’d learned: some men were naturally more gifted at fucking than others. He was one of the lucky ones – he let me know that his God-given proficiency was what made him special.
My experience with the prostitute had taught me that I was not blessed. I could not “fuck all the time.” And, if I couldn’t when I needed to, what kind of son was I? What kind of man? What kind of black man? Not only wasn’t I a hustler, I was nowhere near as capable as my low-down dad. And that bit with me weeping in front of the prostitute, what had that been all about? It was—I had thought at the time—like I’d turned into a girl, a sissy.
I awakened the next morning to the cries of roosters heralding the arc of sunrise. I tried to lose myself in Millington Township that day, Saturday. That’s when I met her. She was an Everygirl, slender and sweet, and ready for love, for life. The rest is a blur: my declarations of love (which she’d insisted on), my effortless devouring of her virginity within days of our meeting, the sweet eyeball-to-eyeball sex followed by the unavoidable introductions to her momma and aunts and to her many sisters, and, with the words, Consida’ ya’ self one’a th’ fam’ly, my adoption into her multitudinous clan, with an easy celerity, at the warp-speed of just-formed Deep South relationships, with no studied familial consideration, no getting-to-know-you transition. Looking back, there was a sense of belonging that I experienced with her family, an unlikely bonding I never could have predicted. And with her whole attention and her family’s unbridled affection coming at me, a childish desperation for love bubbled up that I thought I had left behind.
I would come to understand that I was her momma’s redbone-d northern Messiah, a boy-man who would transport her southern jewel-in-the-making – the dirt-poor youngest daughter of a dirt-poor single, southern mother – to the Promised Land. But although that Tennessee girl rescued me from my opprobrium, I did not rescue her. Instead, in the space of the six weeks of our courtship, my US Navy life disintegrated, and she, unpredictably, would visit my birth city – Washington D.C.
Back when I stepped onto the blistering concrete of Millington Naval Air Station in mid-April of 1975, my new Petty Officer had asked, “You wanna try drill-teaming? It’s part-time, with extra pay.”
Extra pay, I thought. What I asked was, “Can I be a’ Aviation ‘Lectrician if I’m drilling-teaming?”
My new PO, a thirty-ish looking Caucasian with droopy eyes, a sloping forehead and mostly-gone mouse-y brown hair, shrugged his skinny shoulders and mumbled something that sounded like an affirmative.
I wasn’t sure why he picked me. I didn’t want to press my luck by asking. The more I chewed on his offer, the more I bought into the idea of marching—Hut Hut Hut—all martial, in an all-white uniform –helmet, shirt, belt, pants and gloves, part of a constellation of twirling and tossing wooden rifles, of high-stepping and chop-striding to a blaring Navy band that roared like the sea, with the crowd singing God Bless America, and thinking how good we are, how right we are. I would be one of the flesh and blood cogs in the extra-special Millington Naval Air Station drill team wheel: extra-special by way of supplemented pay and privileged lodging – two men to a room instead of one hundred to a barracks. “Arright, I’ll drill,” I’d replied. This was how and why I joined the drill team. Because nothing suited the wanna-cruise-through-life side of eighteen-year-old Nick better than extra cash and being treated extra-special while looking good.
I did not do either job well. Over those first six weeks at Millington, I attended classes during the day. Early mornings and late nights, I drilled assuredly, faithfully, drudged bitterly through what I came to see as the loss of my individuality and of my personal freedom. Evenings, exhausted, I thumbed lifts into town, to my country girl’s momma’s house. In the end, it was the Tennessee heat, the sweat, the sticky smell of myself in those heavy Navy whites, the long work hours, the regimentation, it was the restriction, the boredom, the isolation, the futility of it all that proved to be my downfall. Or, maybe, it was the knock-down, drag-outs I was having with Oscar about my failure that night of the full moon which triggered some unconscious feeling within me that the US Navy was just another version of the same institutional bullshit I had lived with since I was child. Towards the end of those six weeks at Millington, it was the prospect of years of the same unrelenting structure that beat me down and wore me out.
One morning I slept in rather than rising to the bugle call of reveille. Later that day, disgusted with fecal stink and the glare of fluorescent lights, I walked away from my latrine duty punishment. When reprimanded by my narrow-shouldered PO for the second time that day, I told him—in the spirit of my movie hero, Superfly, and righteous black men the world over—to “Get off my case.” I’m sure it was the muttered under the breath “butthole” at the end of the sentence that provoked his response of “You’re fucked sailor.”
It happened fast. Before I could say, “That wan’t really me talkin’,” I found myself booted off that extra-special, God-bless-America drill-team duty, and busted, in pay and grade, and re-assigned from my extra-special two-men-per-room quarters to one of the not-so-special enlisted men’s one hundred-man barracks.
Near the end of that same incautious day, I paused just inside the entrance to the barracks. Even as I recoiled from the smell of myriad men living and breathing and sleeping in close quarters – the soupy-tangy odor of sailors grabassing and lounging in sweaty socks and skivvies – I took in the sight of one hundred narrow racks lined up like matches in a matchbook within which men wisecracked and vigorously shined their boots or read newspapers and comic books or listened to radios belting out a cacophony of gospel talk and country-rock-soul music. And it was as if I was a boy again.
It had been more than three and a half years since Junior Village, and I had almost managed to lose the images and odors of my adolescence. That grabassing barracks brought every bit of it back.
As I stood in the doorway beholding this spectacle, my seaman’s bag tugging insistently at my shoulder, the harsh smells of the institutions of my boyhood greeted me like wild animals, the sad familiar smells of D.C. Receiving Home and of the orphanages of Junior Village and Auberle Home for Boys, zoo-like places from which the animals could never escape, feral odors trapped within The D.C. Youth Center and the twelve-foot-high brick walls and castle-like structures of Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, the asylum within which Mama was still incarcerated. Within this barracks my ghosts lived and thrived, palpable in the soupy air. And, at that moment, I understood the error I’d made enlisting in Uncle Sam’s Navy.
Or maybe this remembrance of odors and animals is nothing more than an invention, an excuse, my rationale for being a quitter. What is certain is that as I stood in that doorway, I decided to do what I had been doing since I was eleven – I decided to run, to abscond; I went AWOL. With everything I owned in the duffle on my back, I simply turned and walked away. Within minutes I thumbed a lift and was on my way to my country girl’s momma’s house. Two weeks later, I was back in DC.
Have you seen an airplane motor up close? I remember peering for the first time into the guts of a Millington Air Station jet engine. I recall the maze of metal bonded to gleaming metal, angular alloy squares and cogs bolted and clamped over and around rods and rectangles of blazing alloy connecting to a coruscating windmill – the largest rotary fan I had ever seen – such that they formed a single monstrous entity. I remember the tornado of wind the engine created: the seething roar was deafening, even through the noise-damping earphones I wore. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the metal behemoth. I recall how mystifying it seemed.
Studying the components of story and memory I am bolting together today, I am left with a similar feeling of awe and mystery. I am left wondering, who was I then? I am struck by the power of recollection, even as I am not sure how one memory connects to another. I am not sure of the meaning behind segments, or even if meaning can be derived from these fragments of remembrance. Are the parts of the memories I am telling the right parts to tell?
Then there are the memories I chose to forget. This is what we do – devise systems of elaborate forgetfulness. But the experience is no less harmful because we decide to forget it. And, when those memories come lumbering back—in a dream, or with fingers poised above keyboards—we are deeply surprised or guilt-stricken to have been who we were. I am amazed at how I chose self-interest over principle every time yet continued to believe in my own innocence. By the age of eighteen, I had not been innocent for some time. By eighteen, my childhood sufferings were the excuse for a betrayal I tried to forget with a young woman whose name I decided not to remember.
I seldom told her that I loved her. I told myself that the girl I left in Tennessee being here in D.C. and in this predicament was her own fault. When I’d left Millington, I had no intentions of contacting her. Ever. She was an incidental part of my recently troubled past.
But weeks after leaving, I called. For some unfathomable reason, I needed to hear her, to maintain some tenuous connection to her. On one of those occasions, as I sat listening to the singsong cadence of her voice, it was she who expressed what we both felt.
“I wanna see you.”
“I ain’t stepping foot in Tennessee.”
“I’ll come ta D.C.”
“What about yo’ momma?”
“Momma want me ta be happy.”
When I agreed to buy her an airline ticket to D.C., I was just signifying, misdirecting her. I had no intention of seeing her again. Even so, the thought of seeing her quieted the fire in my chest.
And so I described the tree-lined, boulevard-like avenues; the gleaming dome of the U.S. Capitol building; the spotlighted obelisk that was the Washington Monument – the grand symbols of our proud democracy. I told her there was money in the air of Washington D.C. I never told her about the putrid Anacostia River dividing the Caucasian spit-shined D.C. from Chocolate City and the hordes of poor, uneducated, Hershey-colored men and women living a bullet away, across the proverbial tracks. I told her of a TV-land version of the District of Columbia where freedom and triumph were unrestricted because this was a D.C. I desperately, myself, wanted to see. I told her about the Technicolor, sugar-coated nation’s capital because I thought that she, like me, might never get to see it. And I told her about D.C. because I knew I would never purchase the promised ticket – I didn’t have the loot. Even if I’d had it, I was living with Penny and her aunt. Knowing this, I made the promise. My mendacity lay easy within me because I knew that she had no way of locating me, of contacting me, she had no address or telephone number for me. She’d never asked. She was that kind of girl. Trusting.
We spoke infrequently but passionately, quick calls when I was alone in the aunt’s apartment. During those talks, I tried not to think ahead. But visiting D.C. was all she talked about. As the date for Penny’s and my departure to Toronto and her scheduled arrival neared, I could think of nothing else. Don’t call her again. Leave her wondering is what I told myself. But I called her the night before her not-to-be visit with a confession swelling in my throat. That’s when she told me, “Yo’ letter didn’ get here yet, so Momma borrowed th’ money n’ bought th’ tickets.”
I could not speak. Rather, sorrow welled up inside me; I teared up silently, childlike, even as I exhorted myself to tell her the truth: I haven’t sent the money; I never intended to. But in some way, unconsciously perhaps, I wanted to be her Messiah. I could never admit that I was not. Not on the telephone that night. Not even when she was waiting for me at National Airport.
As I hugged the princess handset to my face, I realized that I had come to care for her. Did I love her? After seeing what had passed for love between Pops and Mama, between Mama and her father and mother, love was something I was determined to avoid. Besides, what would I do if she and I were in love, were together? We would be like two animals rutting in the gutter, in the mud of Millington Park – our first boudoir. The flies and the dirt were all we knew. I wanted more out of life than a future with her could provide.
That Tennessee girl and her family would drag me back down into the despair I was desperate to escape, is what I thought, like Chesapeake Bay crabs in a boiling caldron pulling back their brethren dangling on the lip of freedom. I told myself that she was young. If left on her own, she’d forget me, meet someone who wasn’t monkeying around, fall in love, marry, even.
And so, months after Tricky Dick Nixon resigned his presidency, weeks after the Vietcong invaded Saigon, within months of when Cassius Clay – draft evader and two-time world boxing champion – won the world championship for a record-setting third time, I set my mouth in a line. I looked anywhere in that coma-hot room except at the bedroom window where I might have caught a glimpse of my reflection in the glass. I reminded myself that sometime you had to stop your thoughts, halt your feelings if you wished to remain whole, because love could take everything from you. Look at what Pops’ love had done to Mama, to Cookie and me.
“Hurry up!” were the last words she spoke to me.
I remember the slap, slap of the clock radio’s page-like lamels making a racket in the less-than-empty room. For a cut of time that was not long and was not short, I hugged the receiver to my ear. When I finally opened my mouth, it was in a whisper.
“I’m coming!” were my last words to her.