RUNNING AS FAST AS I CAN
Growing up in the mill slums surrounding Pittsburgh, all Daniel Robinson ever wanted was a family who loved him. What he got was ignored by a mother who hid in her room praying to an unseen God and a drunk for a father who used everyone as a punching bag. At sixteen after yet another beating, he runs to the only decent man he knows for help—his pastor. He welcomes Daniel “like one of my own sons,” but soon afterward rapes him. Devastated and frightened out of his mind, he runs away again and spends the next ten years wandering the country throughout the turbulent 1960s trying to forget the bedlam he called home.
On his journey Daniel tries desperately to create a new family with all the misfits he meets while caught up in the hippie drug invasion in San Francisco, racial violence in Cleveland and Detroit, and especially a deadly anti-war protest at Kent State. Beaten and nearly killed several times, he loses hope he will ever be happy—until he meets Kate and her daughter, who are both running from their own demons. They love him completely and he finally has the family he dreamed of—and a purpose. Because of his travels, he gets a job helping other homeless men restart their lives. But when one of Daniel’s clients is accused of raping a local girl, he is forced to finally face down his own haunted past—and that tests their love, and his life, in ways Daniel never imagined.
Excerpts from Running As Fast As I Can
Chapter 1: I’m haunted by memories
I’ve been the solitary inhabitant of this bedroom for the past three decades, but I’ve never really been alone. The ghosts from my haunted past parade by every night, filling my mind and taking me back to those times long gone, people now dead and places forgotten by others. Yet to me they are very much alive and with me still. A lifetime of love and loss, but all that remain now are memories.
Chapter 2: We live as we dream—alone
I shared space with people called family. We had the same address, ate at the same table, even had the same last name, but we were strangers. We all lived alone together.
Chapter 3: In the belly of the beast
“I hate that sonofabitch!” he spit out through his clenched teeth. “All his baptism instructions in his office. That’s what he called it, like it was something normal.”
Frankie stared at me, but his face was distant, like he wasn’t seeing me now. “That’s why we left town, you know,” he finally said, his words barely more than a whisper. “When I told my mother what he done to me, she threatened to call the cops. But Duncan didn’t flinch a bit, like it was nothing, like we was nothing. He told her to go ahead and tell the cops ’cause no one would believe her anyway. He said my old man was a drunk and a whore chaser and I was gonna be no better. So she moved us here right after that. She said Duncan was probably right. No one would believe me.”
Frankie collapsed onto the bed and didn’t move or say anything for several minutes. He just stared out the window, like he was back in Clairton again in Pastor Duncan’s office, too scared to say anything, but too angry to let it go.
I wanted to tell him I understood what he felt. I wanted to tell him what Pastor Duncan did to me. I wanted to help my friend. But I didn’t say anything. We never mentioned his name again.
Chapter 4: Lost in Wonderland
I got the first sign my life was going to change for the better when the bus climbed out of Wheeling and crossed into Ohio, then on through one farm town after another—Cambridge, New Concord, and finally Zanesville. The land seemed to relax and open up before me, in colors and smells I never imagined. The fields for miles in every direction were covered with tasseled corn stalks that looked to be taller than me, and the deepest green I’d ever seen. The air that filled the bus now was so wet, so alive, it was all I could do to just breathe it in until I thought my lungs would burst. But it was the sky that really caught my attention. It was clear, and bright blue—something I’d never seen in Clairton.
“Beautiful, ain’t it?” a man sitting next to me said.
“Like nothing I’ve ever seen,” I answered, still staring out the window.
“Take it you’re not from Ohio. Me neither, least not originally. I used to live in Pittsburgh. But when I got out of the Army, I moved to Cincinnati. Folks are more friendly here. Where you from?”
I had to think about that for a minute. “Nowhere,” I finally said. “But I’m gonna live in Kentucky. That’s where I’m from now.”
Chapter 5: The fires of spring
It was Valentine’s Day when I walked into my Spanish class, just like I did every day that semester. That’s when I saw a note on my desk with the familiar handwriting. I felt the blood rush to my face. I miss our walks. I miss you, was all it said, but it was enough to make my heart race with all the hunger I tried so hard to forget. I knew it was madness to see her. Not now. Not ever. If I opened myself to her again, if I allowed my passion for her to come out, I knew she’d consume me. But I couldn’t help myself. The agony I endured during our separation was too much. My only chance was to treat her casually.
“See you after class,” I whispered toward her, like I didn’t care.
“I’m not seeing Craig anymore,” she said when we met in the courtyard. “I missed you too much. I missed our talks. I missed all the things we shared. I want us to be a couple.”
I couldn’t stop myself. I kissed her full on the mouth, long and deep, with all the passion, all the hunger that smoldered in me since I first saw her a year ago. I kissed her with complete abandon and joy because now I knew she loved me as much as I loved her.
Chapter 6: The helpless instruments of blind chance
“I’ve tried to be like everyone else here,” I said as I turned back and looked out the window at the campus. My voice barely more than a whisper. I felt drained, empty.
“I tried to be normal. I did everything all of you asked me to do. I ran harder and longer than anyone else just to catch up. But look where it got me.”
Doc got up from his chair and stood next to me. We both stared out the window.
“Will you keep in touch?” he asked.
“Of course I will. I don’t know when I’ll see you again, but I’ll never forget you. Never.”
I hugged him. “You’re the only family I got.” I turned and walked out the door.
“Vaya con Dios, Daniel,” Doc called out.
I didn’t look back. I couldn’t.
Chapter 7: Call me Ishmael
In the morning the temperature was warm again, so we decided to move on. I was packing my gear when Bobby stopped and looked over at me, like he wanted to say something.
“About yesterday…” He turned and looked at the dying embers in the fire pit. I could barely hear him, like he was talking from a faraway place. Slowly, measuring every word, he said, “I came to Glacier to kill myself. I had it all planned. I was going to go back off trail as far as I could and swallow my gun. I couldn’t take all the shit I was going through. But after talking with you, I thought about my family all night, especially my mother. I think I need to go help her. So I’m heading back home. But I wanna tell you, I owe you my life. I mean it.”
I remembered all those times in Doc’s office—those times when he helped me climb out of the jungle I called my home.
We hugged each other without saying a word. Then we picked up our backpacks and walked down the trail in separate directions.
Chapter 8: Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian
Heavy fog blanketed the ground at dawn. I heard the sound of a straining engine and grinding gears slowly making its way toward me, long before I actually saw it. I crawled warily out of the ditch and listened to that sound echoing back and forth in the valley. Finally, after what seemed like an hour, I saw something come around the bend and out of the fog less than a hundred feet down the road. I wasn’t sure what it was. It looked like a school bus, or at least it had been a long time ago. It was now painted bumper to bumper in wild, exotic, even psychedelic colors—glowing orange, green, magenta, lavender, chlorine blue, and every florescent pastel imaginable. I was dumbstruck. I stood there, with my thumb outstretched, my senses frozen by what was now stopped in front of me. The window slid open and a wave of smoke rolled out and drifted toward me—smoke that even with my four sheltered years at Kentucky Methodist College, I knew was obviously marijuana, lots and lots of marijuana.
A voice called out from the haze, “Hop in, man.”
I quickly weighed my options. I could tell the dope bus driver no thanks and stand in the middle of nowhere for God knows how long until some other trucker tried to kill me because he thought I was a hippie freak. Or I could get in the dope bus with someone who actually was a hippie freak. I got in the bus.
Chapter 9: Surely all this is not without meaning
“Isn’t anybody going to help him?” I asked no one in particular,
“That’s just Watson. He comes in here drunk every day,” a grizzled guy sitting next to me said without any emotion, like it was a normal part of the breakfast routine. “You otta be glad he didn’t piss himself or puke on the table like he done a couple times. He’ll be okay. Just ignore him.”
But I couldn’t. I hadn’t been on the street long enough to be that numb. Not yet anyway. I got up and went to Watson, lifted his head off the floor, grabbed a rag from a nearby table, and gently wiped the eggs and dirt off his face. No cuts I could see. No bruises either. Just really drunk. He smelled so rancid I had to force myself not to vomit.
“He okay?” someone behind me asked, but I didn’t turn around. I held Watson and wiped off the last of the mess from his face.
“He’s alive, but I don’t know for how long. I’m no doctor, but my guess is the booze will kill him, not the fall.”
“That’s the hard part about working here. Watching people kill themselves one drink or one needle at a time, and we can’t stop ‘em. Wish we could, but we can’t. So we just try to give ‘em what we can. Today for Watson it’s some breakfast and a safe place to pass out.”
I turned around to see who was talking to me.
“Name’s Elijah. You interested in a job? I run the Mission and I could use some help. ‘Specially someone like you who seems to care. Don’t pay much, but includes a bed and meals.”
Without hesitating, I agreed. I didn’t even ask what sort of job I was taking.
“I studied psychology. Will that help?”
“Not unless they gave you a broom with your degree. I need a janitor. But what I really need is someone who can do what you just did for Watson. You drink? God knows I don’t need another drunk working for me.”
“Good, then you’re hired. At least I know you’ll show up in the morning. Grab an apron. I need your help in the kitchen.” And with that Elijah turned and walked away.
“My name’s Daniel Robinson,” I called out. He never even asked, like it didn’t matter.
Chapter 10: A prism through which pain could be divided and dissipated
I never met a real nun before. There were plenty of Catholics in Clairton, but I was never in one of their churches. I had no idea what I was supposed to say to Sister Rose now. Her dark blue uniform, and especially her hat, or whatever it’s called, made her seem unapproachable, even threatening.
“Mr. Robinson?” she asked when I stepped into her office.
I was too nervous to answer, afraid I might say the wrong thing and get fired before I even started my new job.
“Mr. Robinson?” she asked again. I just stared at her.
“Mr. Robinson, I take it you’re either a deaf mute or you’re not Catholic. Either way, I can assure you that you’ll be fine here at St. Augustine’s. We desperately need a man for our boys’ cottage, so let me show you where you’ll be living. And you’ll need to get yourself a real coat. This is Cleveland. Not Kentucky.”
Two things were clear to me. First, Sister Rose was not a person to waste words on polite conversation. And second, I thought I might actually get along with her, in spite of her being a nun.
“Looking forward to meeting the boys,” I finally said.
“I see you’re not a deaf mute after all, Mr. Robinson. Your cottage is this way. Just follow me.”
Chapter 11: A world turned back to cinders
“Don’t make me choose. I can’t. I love you, but I can’t leave Jeffrey. I just can’t. That would be wrong.”
“What we’ve been doing every afternoon has been wrong. What I did to Ruthie was wrong. I’m asking you to make it right and go with me. Enough lying from both of us. Let’s be honest with each other just once. I gave up everything and everyone I care about just for you. Now I’m leaving Ohio. I love you and I want you to go with me. That’s as honest as I can be. Now you decide.”
I grabbed my clothes. I wanted her to know I wasn’t backing down. Not now. Not ever. No more lies!
“I can’t, Daniel. I just can’t.” She cried softly, like she did when we first met at the student union.
“Then I’m done with you, Elizabeth. I’m done!” I opened the door and walked out, leaving her laying on the bed, naked and alone.
“Daniel, don’t leave me. I love you. I need you. Please don’t leave me!”
I didn’t look back at her. I knew if I did, she would pull me back. I couldn’t do that anymore. There was no more life left in me. She had taken it all.
Chapter 12: Like a dead man walking
It was a Sunday evening in early October. I hadn’t been out of my basement apartment all weekend. Mostly watching nothing on television, falling in and out of sleep in my chair. The only light came from the screen that flickered endlessly across the room, numbing my mind. Maybe it was a dream, or a nightmare, I couldn’t tell. I was back on that bridge in Kentucky, leaning out over the rail, looking down at the river again. But this time I couldn’t step back. There was no one to help me. No one cared if I jumped.
“God! I’m so alone!” I cried out in the dark. I sat there, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, just staring into the void.
Chapter 13: Tender Mercies
She reached up and gently held my face in her hands and kissed me. I held her hands in mine. We held each other now without saying anything. I felt her love for me and took a deep, slow breath. I had to tell her.
“Some things never go away, Kate. My family was a mess. You know that. But what I didn’t tell you was I moved in with my pastor when it got really bad at our house. He was like the father I never had, and I was glad to be with him. But one day…”
I know she felt my heart pounding. She pulled me closer.
“One day he started touching me…” My voice quivered. I shook. She pulled me so close I felt we were nearly one now.
“I keep thinking it’s my fault…like there’s something dirty in me. That’s why I know people like me don’t deserve to be loved.”
My whole body convulsed. I wept.
She kissed me, first on my right cheek, then my left cheek. “Let me love away all your pain,” she whispered. She kissed my lips gently, tenderly, but with more love than I ever thought possible. We both held each other without saying a word. I knew, without any doubt, I was safe with her. I knew I found the lost part of me. I put my lips to her ear and whispered, “I love you too, Kate.”
Chapter 14: Running as fast as I can
“My old man was never there when I was a kid,” I said staring up at the ceiling. All my memories of Clairton rushed over me again. She squeezed my hand.
“I swore I’d be different. But our kids are growing up without me—just like my old man. It’s killing me, Kate. Something’s gotta change.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m not sure.”
Neither of us said anything for several minutes.
“If you quit your job, what will you do?” she finally asked.
“I’ve always wanted to be a counselor. I lost track of that dream for a long time, but I think I still might like to do that?”
She was silent again for several minute, then reached over and put her arm on my chest and held me.
“Why don’t you call your friend Doc Samuels? Maybe he can help you.”
“That’s what I was thinking too.”
Chapter 15: The crucible
I waited for Kate to come home from her afternoon class. “What’s the absolute last thing you’d ever expect to hear about me?” I asked when she walked in the kitchen door.
“What are you talking about?”
“Reverend Nicholson came to my office today.”
She frowned. “That creep makes my skin crawl.” That was her favorite name for him. Creep. Now I understood what she meant.
“You’re not going to believe it, but he said some woman in our church accused me of sexual harassment.”
She dropped her books on the table. “You’ve got to be kidding. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
“That’s what I told him.”
“Who is it? I mean, who said that about you?”
“He doesn’t know. It was an anonymous call. He’s not even sure what she says I’ve done! It’s all innuendo and third-hand hearsay.”
“And he believed it? That’s absolute crap!”
“That’s what I told him. But it gets worse. He wants me to see a counselor.”
Her body stiffened and she grabbed a chair and held it so tight her knuckles turned white. Her face turned deep red. I never saw her this angry before.
“So what did you tell him?”
“I said I wouldn’t do it. That would be admitting to a lie. I can’t—I won’t do it!”
“Good,” she said, as if that settled the matter.
Chapter 16: In the margins of uncertainty
It was Valentine’s Day. I was planning to take Kate out to dinner when a reporter from the Salem Hill newspaper called early in the morning asking about Charles. I tried to say he wasn’t a danger to the community, that he benefitted from a lot of programming in prison. I even tried to say I thought he might be innocent, but she didn’t seem interested. All she wanted to know was why we brought him to Salem Hill. That afternoon all the details of Charles’ crime was the lead story—especially that he was now living in our apartment.
“This is going to get ugly,” I told Kate and threw the paper in the garbage.
Two hours later an anonymous call confirmed my fears. “The city council is gonna run that nigger rapist out of town. Maybe you, too.”
Kate didn’t say anything, but I knew she was worried.
Chapter 17: Heart of darkness
“I’ve got a bad feeling about all this,” Kate finally said, breaking the silence. “It’s one thing to break a window or paint vile words on our house. But someone tried to kill you! These people are sick—and dangerous!”
I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking the same thing.
“I know we talked about helping Charles, but you could get killed. I never agreed to that. I’m scared, Daniel.”
Chapter 1: I’m haunted by memories
SALEM HILL, OHIO, 2015. I’ve been the solitary inhabitant of this bedroom for the past three decades, but I’ve never really been alone. The ghosts from my haunted past parade by every night, filling my mind and taking me back to those times long gone, people now dead and places forgotten by others. Yet to me they are very much alive and with me still. A lifetime of love and loss, but all that remain now are memories.
I’ve been surprised how quickly I’ve aged since my diagnosis. My hair turned grey long ago, but it’s gotten thin, hardly enough to comb now. My skin is wrinkled from all the weight I’ve lost. And my eyes have begun to fail me, and that has made driving difficult, especially in the dark when headlights glare too bright. I didn’t tell the kids, but they knew, and they worried, especially Jonathan. He said he’s seen too many accidents caused by old people. Old people? I never thought that would mean me, but it does now I guess.
Perhaps that is why I find myself welcoming my nocturnal visitors. The past seems more clear, even more comforting than the present.
“Dad, we need to get going or we’ll miss our flight,” Emma calls from the bottom of the stairs. I smile, but I don’t get up from my chair. Of all the kids, Emma is most like her mother. She doesn’t have her red hair. Her sister has that. But every time Emma walks in the room and looks at me, I see Kate. The tilt of her head, the look in her eyes, and especially the way she taps her foot when she’s upset. Obviously she’s upset now. But not with me, and not even because I’m moving in with her family. She’s glad for that. But like I said, she’s just like her mother. She’s only trying to protect me.
“Just looking at a note,” I answer and gently unfold a yellowed piece of paper. I doubt she heard me, but it doesn’t matter. Emma knows what I’m doing. She’s seen me do this too many times these past thirty years. Even when she was a little girl and I was still drowning in my grief, she found me sitting here reading this note, tears running down my cheek. She always crawled up on my lap and “hugged away the hurt,” as she called it. That’s when I first knew she had her mother’s heart.
The kids told me to sell the house, especially after they were grown and married. “Move away from Salem Hill,” they said. “Come live with us. The grandkids need you.” I thought about it a couple times, but then I remembered how Kate looked at me when we first saw this neglected, broken, shell of a house. The sagging porch, the damaged windows, the leaking roof. She was tapping her foot before we even got in the door. But together, we slowly transformed this ruined building no one wanted into more than just a house. It was a healing place when I bared my great shame to her. It was a refuge from the hatred and violence that surrounded us when that girl disappeared and everyone blamed me. Especially after that horrid night at the city council meeting, this house has been my sanctuary where I always have Kate with me.
But now that I know my end is near, this house doesn’t have the same hold on me it once had.
“Dad,” Emma calls a second time from the steps, but I don’t answer. She can wait a few more minutes. I’m still not quite ready to leave all my memories behind. I just need to look around this bedroom one more time. I need to feel Kate lying next to me again. I need to remember how lost I was until she saved me.
I need to remember all of it—from the beginning.
Chapter 2: We live as we dream–alone
I can still see that model airplane I built when I was twelve years old. I had a job delivering newspapers after school and saved all my money through most of the seventh grade just to buy an authentic P-40 Tomahawk fighter kit I’d been eyeing in the window of Thompson’s Hobby Shop. It had a working motor, and the manager told me it could actually fly, but he didn’t recommend it. “More for display,” he said.
I worked on my new plane in my room every day after school for hours and hours until I had every detail perfect, so it looked exactly like the one pictured on the box. I even painted it a camouflage color and added authentic decals to make it more realistic. When it was finally done after weeks of work, I wanted to show it to someone. My mother was in one of her moods again and wouldn’t come out of her room. But my father was watching television, and from what I could tell, he wasn’t drunk yet.
“What do you think?” I asked and held my airplane in front of him.
He didn’t look up, but just took a long drink from his bottle of Iron City beer and kept staring at the Pirates game on the television.
“It’s an authentic P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane. You know, a Flying Tiger, just like the ones that flew in World War II. You were in the war, weren’t you, Dad? Did you ever fly in one of these planes?”
He still didn’t say anything, or even look at me.
“Built it myself. Really hard too. It wasn’t easy to put the frame together ‘cause it’s made of balsa wood and covered with a special paper I brushed with oil to make it shrink and fit perfect. Want to see all the decals,” I said and turned it around slowly. “I even painted the shark’s mouth on the nose, just like a real Tomahawk. The motor works too, and I got some model fuel with it ‘cause the man at the store said it can actually fly. But I’m just gonna keep it on my dresser ’cause it’s real special.”
I wanted my father to say something about my plane. Nice job. Looks like it was hard to build. I’m really proud of you, son. But he didn’t say anything while I stood in front of him anxiously holding up my airplane like some sort of offering to the gods.
“Want to see how the motor works?” I asked, desperate now for his attention.
After what seemed like forever, he slammed his beer on the table, gave me that irritated look I saw so many times, and shouted, “You’re blocking the fuckin’ game!”
He didn’t hit me, not like he sometimes did, but I started to cry anyway. I quickly turned away and wiped my eyes. Without saying another word, I walked out of the room and went straight to the backyard where I set my new airplane on the ground, filled the tank with fuel and flicked the propeller several times until the motor screamed to life. I grabbed my father’s Zippo lighter from my pocket, flipped open the lid, hit the striker twice to get a steady flame and held it under the tail until the oil-treated skin ignited. Then I launched my plane into the air.
For a few wonderful seconds my special P-40 Tomahawk fighter with all those authentic decals flew up and up, just like I always imagined. But when the flames engulfed the wings, the plane suddenly veered sharply to the right, then down and down in a death spiral until it crashed to the ground. I wanted to cry again, but I didn’t. I never built another model airplane.
It was my sixteenth birthday when Frankie Denardo showed up at my door and said he was taking me to the Clairton Theater for a John Wayne double feature.
“Happy birthday, Daniel,” he announced and held up two tickets.
I wasn’t expecting anything, even from Frankie. We grew up on the same block since we started first grade together at Wilson Avenue School. His father worked in the mill and frequented anyone of a dozen Clairton bars, just like my old man. We were in a lot of classes together, and both of us had newspaper routes until we started high school. He was as close to a best friend as I ever had.
“Sure. Love to see the Duke,” I said.
“You need to tell anyone where you’re going? I mean ‘cause it’s your birthday?”
Mum wouldn’t even know I was gone. I saw the pattern too many times. The crying, the threats to hurt herself, the long periods of silence when she stayed hidden in her bedroom, praying in the dark, not seeing or hearing anyone. For as long as I remembered, the neighbor kids all said she was crazy. I was too young the first time it happened to know what crazy meant. But after a half dozen trips to Woodville State Hospital over the past ten years, I understood all too well now.
The old man was passed out on the couch, and neither of my brothers cared much what I did today.
“Nah. It’ll be okay.”
When I got back home four hours later, I found my brother Robert standing in the alley staring at our house. He was the oldest and tried to protect me and my little brother Billy from the old man, but he was never strong enough to stop him. None of us were. Robert always got the brunt of his anger for any real or imagined reason. Like closing a door too hard. That was the worst thing we could do when he was drunk, except when it was something else. We never knew what it would be. From the way he was yelling at Mum now, it was obvious the old man was really mad about something.
“What set him off this time?” I asked when I dropped my bike by the fence.
“Like it really matters.” Robert picked up a rock and threw it at Mrs. Martini’s cat in the alley. She lived next door and was always complaining about everything we did. She yelled something, but he ignored her.
The old man screamed at Mum again.
“God, I can’t stand living with him!” Robert shouted and grabbed another rock and threw it at Mrs. Martini’s cat, this time even harder. It squealed and scrambled up the maple tree beside her house.
“That’s it!” Robert looked at me like he realized something obvious. “He’s just Him.”
I had no idea what he meant. He was always saying crazy stuff like that anyway, especially about the old man, and most of the time I paid no attention to him.
“I’m going to Frankie’s house,” I said and jumped on my bike. But he grabbed my arm and jerked me back.
“You really don’t get it, do you?” Robert nearly spit the words at me. I tried to pull away, but he squeezed my arm harder. “You still want to believe this is a normal family. Listen to Mum crying, for god’s sake. Does that sound normal to you?”
I didn’t need to hear Robert rant again about what a lousy family we had, not today, not ever, so I didn’t answer. But he wouldn’t let it go.
“You ever call him father? Or even Dad? I didn’t think so. Names like that mean we got a relationship, maybe even some affection for Him. But I got no relationship, and I’ll guarantee you no affection. To me he’s just Him—some abusive stranger who happens to live in the house with us.”
He let go of my arm and pushed me back, then grabbed another rock and threw it toward Mrs. Martini’s house. She was standing at her window and yelled something, but he ignored her again and walked away from our house and down the alley.
After that, Robert tried to avoid the old man as best he could, at least until a week later when he planned a special date with a girl who lived fifteen miles away in Pittsburgh. He said he wanted to borrow the old man’s new fire engine red ’64 Chevy Impala SS coupe. We both knew he bought it that spring to impress a neighbor woman he tried to seduce. He still treated that car better than us and Robert detested him all the more for it.
“You sure you wanna do that?” I asked. “Nobody drives that car except him.” But like always, Robert didn’t listen to me and walked into the living room where the old man was watching the Pirates game on television and finishing another beer. His eyes were glassy, and it was obvious he was pretty drunk by now.
“Can I use the car Saturday?” Robert tried to act like it was just a normal question, but his jaw clenched like it always did when he had to talk to the old man.
He ignored Robert.
“I got an important date Saturday and I need the car?” The words stuck in Robert’s throat and he swallowed hard as sweat broke out on his forehead. “I’ll put gas in it.”
The old man took a long drink, mumbled something about “another goddamn losing season,” and kept staring at the game. The Pirates hadn’t had a winning season in four years and the old man was not happy about it. Robert looked toward Mum in the kitchen, as if asking her to somehow intercede. But we both knew she had no more influence over him than we did.
“William, he’s a good driver and he needs the car Saturday night,” she finally said with little enthusiasm. “Let him use it, will you?”
He mumbled something. “I think he said yes,” Mum told Robert, then went back into her room and closed the door.
Robert spent most of Saturday afternoon nervously getting ready for his date.
“I need to take a shower,” he yelled and opened the bathroom door without knocking. I was standing in front of the mirror pasting my hair with Brylcream. “And that shit won’t help.”
I tried to ignore him, but he pushed by me and turned on the shower. He did that a lot. I figured it was because he was two years older and used to getting his way. Or maybe because he was shorter than me. He never said anything, but I know it bothered him a lot.
“And the freckles too. You can’t comb them away either,” he said and pulled back the curtain and stepped into the tub.
There were times, and this was one of them, when my brother really irritated me. He had a way of knowing what bothered me most, then jabbing at it until I reacted. I hated my hair—”shit brown”—that’s what he called it. And that lousy cowlick didn’t help. I’d been trying for an hour to get it to lay flat. I hated my freckles even more and he reminded me of them every chance he got.
“Screw you, Robert,” I shot back too quickly. He stuck his head around the shower curtain and smiled that same irritating way he always did when he knew he really got to me, and that made me even madder. All I could think to do was flush the toilet and walk out. Hearing him scream about getting scalded made me smile all the way to Frankie’s house.
When I got back to the house two hours later and found Robert standing in front of the mirror in our bedroom, I’d already forgotten what he said about my hair. “Did the old man say anything to you about tonight?” I asked.
“You mean did I get any advice from Him about my date? God, you still expect Him to be a real father. Well, that ain’t gonna happen—and you know it. Remember that airplane you built when you were a kid? All I expect from Him is the car key! That’s it.” He looked in the mirror again, straightened his tie for the tenth time, glanced at me and muttered, “Wish me luck,” and walked away.
“Okay. Leaving now. Can I have the key?” Robert asked when he found Him in the living room.
He didn’t answer.
“I gotta go now. Can I have the key?”
The old man took a long, deliberate pull on his bottle and stared at the television. Pittsburgh was playing Cincinnati tonight and the Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh was being interviewed about the game. The old man hated Cincinnati, especially this year because they were in second place and far ahead of the Pirates.
He ignored Robert.
“I’m gonna be late. I gotta go. Can I have the key?” Robert’s jaw clenched and the blood vessels in his neck bulged.
“Goddamn Murtaugh,” the old man muttered and grabbed a cigarette from the pack on the table and tried several times to light it. He mumbled something about his lighter and tossed it on the table, then yanked open the drawer and fumbled through it until he found a match. He slowly lit his cigarette, took a long drag and fell back into his chair, all while Robert stood in front of him and seethed.
“You said I could have the car tonight,” Robert screamed. “I made plans and now, dammit, I’m using the car!” Before the old man could say anything, Robert grabbed the key from the table and ran out the door.
“You little goddamn prick!” the old man muttered when his drunken haze finally cleared enough for him to realize what happened. He staggered to his feet and threw his bottle toward the door where it shattered against the wall and nearly hit me in the head. I saw him angry lots of times, but not like this. I knew I had to get out of his way before he came after me, but I was so scared I couldn’t move. I stood there and watched him stumble past me and out the door. Robert shook so hard he couldn’t get the car unlocked and the old man grabbed him. But Robert spun around and knocked him to the ground, then jumped in the car, slammed the door shut and locked it.
The old man staggered to his feet and yanked the door so hard again and again I thought the handle would break. “Open this goddamn door or um gonna bust it open!”
Mum heard all the screaming and came out of her room and stood in the yard. I followed her.
“Can’t you do something?” I asked, but she had that same frightened look I saw so many times and didn’t answer me. I don’t think she even heard me. She just whimpered like she always did when he got violent.
Robert tried frantically to get the key in the ignition, but he still shook so much he dropped it twice. That only made the old man madder and he beat on the window with his fist. “You little goddamn prick!” he screamed again and stumbled to the front of the car. In spite of his drunken stupor, he somehow managed to unlatch the hood and yank it open, then climb on the bumper and grab for the coil wire. “I’ll teach you to steal my fuckin’ car!” he yelled from under the hood.
Billy heard all the screaming and came out of the house and stood behind Mum.
Robert finally got the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life. He slammed the transmission into reverse, floored the accelerator and careened down the street with the old man still standing on the bumper and hanging onto the radiator. “Stop the fuckin’ car!” he screamed.
Robert swerved left and right, nearly hitting several parked cars, until a half block down the street, the old man fell off the bumper, slammed onto the pavement and rolled over several times. My brother didn’t seem to notice, or care, but kept going down the street in reverse with the hood still up. At the corner of Walnut Avenue, he finally stopped the car, got out, slammed the hood shut and drove off.
The old man didn’t move for several minutes. Then slowly he stumbled to his feet and staggered back toward us. I froze. I didn’t know what to do, so I held my breath and prayed. Mum grabbed Billy and pulled him behind her. None of us moved, or even breathed. But then he walked on by without saying a word and limped into the house and slammed the door so hard the windows shook. I looked at Mum, still too scared to speak. She didn’t say anything either, but slumped to the curb with a blank look on her face, like she wouldn’t hear me anyway. Billy and I didn’t know what to do now, so we sat down with her and stared at our house, hoping, praying he wouldn’t come out again.
“You were right, Robert,” I mumbled half out loud. “He’s just Him.”
The three of us sat there for maybe an hour, not saying anything until Mum finally stood up. “He’ll be passed out on the couch now,” she said without even looking at us, like this was something normal, and walked back into the house. We followed, but she went into her bedroom and shut the door. We didn’t know what to do, so we went to our room and laid on our beds in the dark, still too scared to speak.
Sometime past midnight Robert climbed in the window and got into his bed without getting undressed. I had a hundred questions for him, but didn’t say anything. I just stared at the ceiling in the dark and worried what would happen to us now. It must have been a couple hours later. I’m not sure when. All I knew it was still dark outside when Robert asked of no one in particular, like it was something he’d been thinking about all night, “Why do you think Mum married Him?”
“I think she did it to get out of Coal Valley.” he said, before I could answer, like he was talking more to himself.
I knew she grew up there. It was the poor part of Clairton, downwind from the steel mill that covered a thousand acres along the Monongahela River. I hated going anywhere near that place because all the smoke made my lungs burn for days. She never talked about Coal Valley, and I never thought about it until now.
“Maybe,” was all I said.
Near dawn Robert got up and left the room. I followed him because I was afraid there would be another fight. When he saw the old man still passed out on the couch, he walked down the hall to the kitchen where Mum was sitting in the dark, staring out the window.
“I’m glad you’re up,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.”
She didn’t say anything, or even look up.
“I can’t stay here. Not after last night.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, but with little emotion, like she wasn’t listening.
Robert looked toward the living room. “I’m leaving. I’ve had enough of Him. I gotta go.”
“Where? What are you going to do?” She turned and looked at Robert now, like she finally heard what he said.
“Join the Army so I can get as far away from Him as I can. I just wanted to say good-bye before I left.”
She started to cry softly and he tried to hug her, but it was awkward and she didn’t respond. Robert turned to me instead, grabbed my hand and shook it. “Take care of her for me,” he said and nodded toward the living room. Then he opened the door and left.
I knew Robert was right. The old man was going to kill him when he sobered up. But now all of us were going to pay for what he did. Mum looked at me and didn’t say anything, but I knew what she was thinking. I saw that frightened look too many times.
I wanted to leave too, but I was just sixteen. I couldn’t join the Army. I still had two years left in high school. I had nowhere to go.
“Don’t worry, Mum,” was all I said, but I was worried too.
None of us mentioned Robert after that. He was gone and now we did what we had to do—avoid the old man and pray he wouldn’t come after us now. I spent all my time with Frankie, mostly hanging out at the Clairton Park. The city had a great pool that only cost twenty-five cents, so we rode our bikes there, usually around eleven when it opened, and stayed until dark when it closed.
Mum spent most of the summer in her room. I don’t know if she missed Robert, or even thought about him. I just know she never mentioned his name. Billy was different, maybe because he was just ten and Robert always tried to keep the old man from hurting him too much. Now he was gone and Billy looked to me for help. He didn’t come right out and say it, but it was the way he followed me around the house, always asking if he could come with me and Frankie to the pool.
“Here comes the cowboy again.” That was Frankie’s name for Billy because he always wore that stupid cowboy shirt Robert gave him for his tenth birthday.
“Wait for me, Daniel,” Billy called from the yard, and ran to the alley where Frankie and I were getting on our bikes.
“I’m not gonna carry him on my handlebars again. I nearly got killed when I tried that,” Frankie complained.
“Just leave him,” he yelled back as he peddled down the alley.
I didn’t want to leave Billy alone at the house, not since Robert left, but Frankie was right. Besides, the old man was at work all day and Billy could find something to do by himself. Like Frankie always said, he’s just a kid. What was I supposed to do? I ignored Billy and peddled after Frankie.
Billy cried a lot that summer.
It was sometime after school started in September and I was stuck at the house with Billy. For some reason he wasn’t bothering me as much as he did all summer, so I let him hang out with me until Frankie arrived. We weren’t doing much of anything, just sitting in the back yard when Mum came out of the house. She didn’t say anything, but looked at us and smiled. I noticed that because I hadn’t seen her smile in a long time, and I remember thinking how pretty she was. I never thought of my mother as pretty before, but seeing her smile now made her look happy, or at least what I thought happy would look like at our house.
“I’m glad you’re playing with Billy,” was all she said and walked back to her room. For just a little while that day I felt like we were a normal family. It felt good.
We didn’t see much of the old man after Robert left. I figured he spent most of his time working at the mill all day and closing down the bars at night. All I knew for sure he wasn’t at the house and we didn’t have to face him. That is, until sometime in January when he came home drunk out of his mind.
“Fuckin’ bosses laid me off,” he yelled at Mum. She didn’t say anything, but I knew what she was thinking. I saw that same worried look on her face every time he bought something we couldn’t afford. She walked back into her room and shut the door.
He spent his time at home now, drinking and yelling at us—and mostly at Billy. He was the weakest one because he still wanted Him to be a real father. He still wanted us to be normal. I gave up on that delusion when Robert left.
“Get outta the front of the fuckin’ television, you horse’s ass!” That was his favorite name for Billy—horse’s ass.
I was in the kitchen when I heard him. “Goddammit! I said move!” I came into the living room just when he threw a bottle at Billy and barely missed his head. It smashed into the screen of the brand new color television he bought on payments for himself two weeks ago. There was a loud POP, and the screen went blank.
“I told you get outta the fuckin’ way. Now look what you done!” he yelled and grabbed Billy by the arm and threw him hard against the wall. Billy started to cry and that made the old man even madder. He jerked Billy up by his arm, this time much harder, and he cried out in pain. Mum heard all the noise and came out of her room. That’s when we heard it—SNAP!—and Billy cried out again, this time so loud I thought he was dying.
Mum must have thought the same thing because she screamed at the old man like I never heard before, “Damn you, William!” and grabbed a lamp off the table and smashed it on his head. A thousand glass shards exploded across the room. For a second, he stood there, too stunned to move while blood ran from a gash on the back of his head. His face contorted with rage and he turned and lunged at Mum, grabbed her hair and yanked her neck back and slapped her hard in the face—once, twice, three times. She covered her head as best she could, but it didn’t help.
I knew he was going to kill her this time, and I just went crazy and ran across the room and slammed into him from behind with my shoulder. He fell hard against the wall and slumped to the floor gasping for breath.
“Grab Billy and get outta here!” I yelled. She tried to lift him, but his arm hung at a weird angle and he cried out again. I grabbed his other arm, lifted him off the floor and the three of us ran across the yard to Mrs. Martini’s house where I pounded on her door forever until she opened it. She looked at Mum’s face, that was now red and swollen, then at Billy, who was still crying and holding his dangling arm. That’s when the old man came out of the house and saw us and stumbled across the yard screaming at Mum, me, and Mrs. Martini.
“Get in the house quick,” Mrs. Martini said, and slammed the door behind us and locked it just as he reached the steps. He beat on the door and screamed, “Goddamn you, you old bitch, open the fuckin’ door!” but Mrs. Martini called the cops instead. They arrested him and took Billy and Mum to the hospital. She was okay, just a black eye and some bruises, but Billy had to stay there for a couple days because the doctor said his arm was broken.
Some people from the welfare office came to the hospital to see Billy. The man said his name was Mr. Rudnik and I didn’t like him. He kept looking at his watch, like he had someplace else he wanted to be. I figured it was the bar across the street from the hospital because I saw those same swollen red eyes and splotchy dry skin with too many drunks in my neighborhood. He asked Mum a lot of questions about our family, about the old man, and especially Billy. She hadn’t said much since the old man beat her, and it was obvious, at least to me, she didn’t want to talk to strangers, especially when Mr. Rudnik asked about Woodville. She turned toward the window without answering him.
“Daniel, is there anything you can tell us about your family?” he asked me now. I looked at Mum, hoping she could tell me what to say, but she ignored us.
“We’re okay,” was all I said.
Mr. Rudnik glanced at Mum, then back to me. “Daniel, can we go out into the hall for a minute?” he asked. “Miss Nelson can stay here with your mother.” She was much younger than Mr. Rudnik and seemed like she really wanted to help us. I figured she was new to the welfare office. I looked at Mum again, but she kept staring out the window, so I followed him out of the room.
“We know your mother has made several trips to Woodville and we need to know if Billy is safe with her.” He looked at his watch again.
I didn’t want to talk to him about my mother, and especially Woodville. “She’s okay, just real quiet, if that’s what you mean.”
“Daniel, we’re concerned your mother is not…how do I say this…strong enough to care for Billy. That’s all.”
I could smell alcohol on his breath. “Like I said, she’s just real quiet.” I wanted him to stop asking me all these questions about my mother.
He looked at his watch again, sighed, and went back into the room. He and Miss Nelson talked for a minute, then both left without saying anything more to us.
A week later those same people came to our house.
“Mrs. Robinson, we don’t think it’s safe for Billy to stay here,” Mr. Rudnik said. “Eventually your husband will be released from jail. That’s why we talked to your sister, Mary Wojcik, in Pittsburgh. She’s willing to take Billy.”
Mum started to cry.
“It’s not forever,” Miss Nelson said. “Just until your situation is…more stable. We think it’s best for everyone. Especially Billy.” She reached for my mother’s hand to comfort her, but Mum got up from her chair without saying anything and walked to her bedroom. Billy was standing in the hall and heard the conversation. I thought he’d be upset, but he didn’t cry at all. He just went to his room and filled a bag with some clothes, put on his cowboy shirt and left with the welfare people. I think he knew they were right. He couldn’t live with Him anymore. None of us could.
We didn’t talk about Billy after that. Mum stayed in her room in the dark and I listened to my radio alone. In March somebody from the jail called and said the old man was getting released and they wanted to know if she could come get him. Mum walked back to her room and shut the door. The next morning an ambulance came and took her to Woodville.
I had nowhere to go.
I shared space with people called family. We had the same address, ate at the same table, even had the same last name, but we were strangers. We all lived alone together.