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Robby was the last new boy,
having come to the Tarrant County Children’s Home
just days before.
He was pale and quiet, with Cherokee cheeks, a crooked nose,
straight dark hair and a hawk-like stare.
He carried an inhaler for asthma, and his
malnourished arms were so thin his shirt sleeves flapped
like little wings.
Radiators hissed at frosted windows
that morning our matron went after Robby.
He’d wet his bed again and was cringing
near some lockers where her gnarly finger pointed.
"Get over here!" she said.
Robby backed away, pleading,
“No, Mama Grossman!
Please! I didn’t mean to!"
Impaling him with cobra eyes,
she moved to where the board was kept—
a hefty plank of pine, sanded smooth, notched and taped for ease of grip.
It jolted me, that look of terror in his eyes
when Robby saw the board there in her hand.
I couldn’t look away but wanted to,
as he crouched there trying to disappear, screaming,
"No! Mama Grossman!
I won’t do it again!"
There was no way for me to know back then
that sight of the board in Grossman’s hand
had triggered memories of beatings by his mother.
In Robby’s bones, he knew too well
the consequences of a woman’s rage.
We gathered, all thirteen of us, to watch.
"I’ll show you what defying
Muh-E-e can mean!"
She wagged her head and bugged her eyes
as “me” roared up in a warbling growl.
"I tell yuh, now;
the longer yuh take;
the more you’ll get!"
On she came, gesturing, while
from her other hand, cocked against a hip,
hung her wooden tool of rising lust.
And with each step closer Robby backed away,
yet she persisted, ‘til the distance shrank and
she could grab his wrist and pull him clear
for an unimpeded swing.
"Now bend over! Grab
those ankles like I said!"
With flowing tears, the
sixty-pounder’s hands went down and
he took the posture of submission as directed.
The impact buckled his knees, and
he scrambled screaming past her reach, then turned, pleading,
tugging at his rump as if it were on fire.
But like a snarling dog, she said,
“Get back here! Grab those ankles!
Not tomorrow, grab ‘em now!
I could read on Robby’s anguished face
how torn he was between
the matron’s unrelenting power
and his urge to run. But where?
The reason he was there
was no one had a place for him.
When Robby could no longer stall,
he bent his bony frame, and just
as his trembling fingers touched his shoes
she swung the board with everything she had.
Up once more he lurched, dancing, screaming,
pulling at the fabric of his jeans. But
Grossman only glared and spat the sickening command,
“Get back and grab those ankles!”
From where I stood safe behind a table,
the dormitory clock had stopped.
The smell of pee was in the air.
The boys and I could only gape
and hope for this to end.
And yet the gargoyle carousel revolved, and—
again his trembling fingers reached,
again she struck,
again his body jerked and writhed.
Inverted, from between his legs,
Robby watched her backswing and prepared.
A veteran now, he’d worked out
how to time his move and spring erect,
absorbing energy with his baggy pants.
But those self-preserving antics
were like feeding oxygen to fire.
Her face a dripping mask,
she snatched his wrist and held him
as he struggled in an arc around her.
“I’ll show You!” she said,
grabbing his collar she jammed his head between her knees and pinned it there;
then, holding his belt she hoisted his rump and
worked on it like some hate machine gone wild.
The flabby arm attached to her sweat-darkened blue flowered dress
ratcheted up and down,
up and down,
up and down,
while Robby, his upside-down face beet red, flailed
his arms among her granny shoes and the sweat and tear-stained tiles, while
Grossman’s teeth clamped pulsing onto her lower lip,
in rhythm to the impact of the board.
Then finally she staggered, released her quivering knees,
and let the whimpering mass that once was little Robby
tumble to the floor.
He bounced all the way to Vermont,
where in fifty years I found him,
a brush-faced fire-breathing sparrow of a man
with hands like iron.
I held him close, wiped his tears and told him,
“Love you man.”
We reminisced about the Home
and a certain marble game we’d played.
I bought him food and art supplies.
He drew me pictures.
Using Facebook, I found his sisters
and his children, all six of them.
A round of seasons came and went, then
Reverend Abernathy posted Robby had pneumonia,
but before his ashes filled the urn,
he got to see from the lap-held screen of his eldest woman child,
pictures of our Homer clan
and his own progeny.
Indeed, we said our final words,
three thousand miles apart, on Facebook.
(Thank you Mister Zuckerberg.)
Robby rides my shoulders now,
every day, reminding me
that I still owe him those
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