Weighted down by old notebooks and pictures in the upstairs closet of my childhood bedroom lays a child’s journal given to me one year as a Christmas present. The questions are capitalized in bold. The answers follow underneath on a long straight line written by a No. 2 pencil that, as the years have passed, has all but faded.
WHAT HOBBY DO YOU ENJOY DOING AFTER SCHOOL?
I like to play basketball and baseball and ride my bike at the court.
WHO IS YOUR BEST FRIEND?
My best friend is Robbie Hunter Hancock, Jr.
No matter how faint the pencil mark in my response has become over time, the answers might as well be written in black ink or etched in stone.
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To pause for a moment on Robbie’s name. Most everyone calls Robbie “Rob,” and that is indeed what he goes by. I’m likely in the one percentile of people that don’t call him Rob, and it probably drives him a little crazy I also don’t, but I can’t. He’s Robbie to me — always has been, always will be — just as my mom is Mama. I told him once (when we were drunk) when he started calling me Jeffy that I just can’t bring myself to call him Rob. It’s a fine name, but it seems artificial coming from my lips due to our long standing relationship drawing from the time we still both shit our diapers.
Robbie is my second cousin, a little more than a year and a half older than me. His grandmother, Elner, my Papa Hamlett’s sister and my great aunt. Though our blood was inextricably linked through kin, there is more to it than that. I have many cousins, but there is only one Robbie; and our entangled paths since our days of crawling on all fours is less about the blood in our veins, and more about the shared blood spilled on a common soil. It is a shared history of purple bruises turned green on shins and small rocks caught in scraped palms. We pushed each other down, and we picked each other up. Then we pushed each other down again, often Robbie pushing harder.
Robbie is the first real friend I ever knew.
Whatever Robbie did I wanted to do. Whatever shoes his parents bought him (white, black, and green Nike Air Flights), I pleaded for my mom to buy me for the upcoming school year — because for Robbie to wear them, meant they were, in my eyes, the epitome of cool. And, on my checklist of daily activities, being cool like Robbie was at the top of the list.
In a sense, Robbie was my childhood idol, even more so than Cal Ripken, Jr., Scottie Pippen, Drazen Petrovic, or Dennis Rodman — and need I not forget, Daffy Duck.
Robbie had dark brown hair, so dark it was almost black, and a slim figure like the rest of us in Phenix. Blame metabolism for our perpetual skinniness or genetic DNA. I blame the Phenix water supply, and for more than just the occasional bout of nausea and diarrhea. I’ll always blame the water.
Robbie’s pituitary gland always seemed a few years ahead of everyone else’s, and every time it looked as though the rest of us were just about to catch up in height, his body would sense the competition and thus trigger an internal mechanism to challenge this notion and add on a few extra inches to defeat our cause.
For me to attempt to catch Robbie in height was a futile wish never to come true until years and years later. Yet, I still hung upside down on the pull-up bar in the upstairs hallway my dad had installed, hoping and praying the gravitational pull of my acrobatics would stretch my limbs, only for the bar eventually to fall down with me hanging upside down like a bat, and by God’s good grace alone not breaking an arm, collarbone, or my neck.
I looked up to Robbie, quite literally, for the better part of my adolescent life until I finally surpassed him in height at the end of our teenage years.