Growing up in the mill slums surrounding Pittsburgh, all Daniel Robinson ever wanted was a family who loved him. Instead, he 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, he runs away and spends the next ten years wandering the country throughout the turbulent 1960s trying to forget the bedlam he called home.
On his epic journey Daniel tries desperately to create a new family with all the misfits he meets, as he gets 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. Disillusioned, and nearly killed several times on his odyssey, Daniel loses hope he will ever be happy—until he meets Kate Fitzgerald, who was running from her own demons.
Together they get a second chance at love and the family they both want. Because of his experiences, he gets a job helping other homeless men restart their lives. But when one of his black clients is suspected of killing a local girl, Daniel is threatened by the racist fears and hatred in the town.
Will he run away again, like he has always done? Or will he stay and fight? That decision forces Daniel to finally face down his own haunted past—and that tests their love, and Daniel’s life, in ways he never imagined.
JOHN DAVID GRAHAM is the founder of Good Samaritan Home, a housing / mentoring program helping men and women restart their lives after prison. Prior to that he was a door-to-door salesman, a children’s home counselor, substitute school teacher, truck driver, fireman, building contractor, minister and journalist. Sometimes the road home takes many twists and turns.
Excerpts from Running As Fast As I Can
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 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 9: Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian
Heavy fog blanketed the ground sometime near dawn as I crawled out of my sleeping bag. My stomach growled, so I grabbed a hand full of trail mix from my pack. But that only reminded me of Bobby’s cooking and my stomach growled again, this time even louder. That’s when I heard grinding gears and a strained engine slowly making its way toward me, long before I actually saw it.
Maybe it’s that trucker coming back for me? I thought about hiding in the ditch, just until I was sure, but I’d seen only a couple cars since I left the park. I’m not getting stuck standing here for another day! I had no choice, so I grabbed my pack and climbed back up the hill. My ankle was so swollen I had to loosen my shoelace. But that only made it worse, and every step felt like I was walking on glass shards. When I finally reached the road, the fog was so thick I couldn’t see in either direction. That engine sound was rumbling closer, echoing back and forth in the valley. After what seemed like an hour, I finally saw something turn the bend and out of the fog less than a hundred feet down the road.
Thank God, it’s not that trucker. But who—or what—is it? It looked like a school bus, or at least it had been one a long time ago. Now it was painted bumper to bumper in wild, exotic, even psychedelic colors—glowing orange, green, magenta, lavender, chlorine blue, and every florescent pastel imaginable. I just stood there dumbstruck, with my thumb outstretched, my senses frozen by the sight 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 marijuana.
Lots and lots of marijuana.
“Hop in, man,” a voice called out from the haze.
I quickly weighed my options. I can say no thanks, then stand in the middle of nowhere with my busted ankle for God knows how long until some other trucker tries to kill me because he thinks I’m a hippie freak.
Or I can get in the dope bus with a real hippie freak.
I hobbled into the bus.
Chapter 10: Family is where you find it
I finished my second plate of eggs and rubbed my belly. The growling had stopped…for now anyway. And for the first time since I arrived in San Francisco, I started to relax. Suddenly there was a loud crash of metal and breaking glass behind me. “Damned lousy drunk!” someone shouted. Some guy passed out and fell to the floor right on top of a mess of ham, eggs, bread, coffee, silverware and broken glass that splashed all over the aisle. Now everyone was shouting at him.
“Goddammit, Watson. Not again!”
“Somebody get Elijah, so I can finish my breakfast!”
There’s gotta be someone to help him. But no one moved. They just shouted louder. “Is anybody going to help that guy?” I asked no one in particular.
“That’s just Watson. He comes in here drunk every day,” a grizzled man sitting next to me said dully, like it was a normal part of the breakfast routine. “You outta 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 ignore him. 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 weathered face. No cuts I can see. No bruises. Just really drunk. I pulled off his cap and tried to wipe the grime off his bald head, but it was obvious it would take a whole lot more than my rag. For a minute, something moved in his stringy beard. Lice? It was obvious he soiled himself, but judging from his clothes, it could have been a month ago and he wouldn’t have known the difference. He smelled so rancid I was sure I was going to vomit my breakfast.
“He okay?” someone asked from behind me, but I didn’t turn around. I held Watson and wiped the last of the mess off 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. Is there someone here who can help him?”
“That’s the hard part about working here,” that same person said. “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,” he said. “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 job it was.
“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 19: I’m running as fast as I can
“What’s wrong, Daniel?”
How could I tell her the best part of my life was slipping past me…and I was losing the ones I care about most? “I took this office job when Jonathan was born. I knew it would mean a lot of hours, but we needed the money. He’s nearly three now, and the only time I see him is at night when he’s sleeping. Susan is growing so fast I hardly recognize her. And now with Emma…” I took a slow breath and pulled her to me. “I think what I’m saying, Kate, is I feel like I’m losing you and the kids, not because of anything bad I’ve done, but the good thing I’m doing all wrong. Does that make any sense?”
“I don’t understand,” she exhaled the words. Worry and fear mixed in her eyes.
I took another breath. “I can’t really explain what I’m feeling, but I just know my old man was never there when I was a kid.” I stared up at the ceiling as she took my hand and squeezed it. “I swore I’d be different. But our kids are growing up without me—just like my old man…and it’s killing me, Kate. Something’s gotta change. That’s all I know.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“I’m not sure.”
Neither of us said anything for several minutes. “If you quit your job,” she finally asked, exhaling every word, as if they were too much for her to say out loud, “…what will you do?” She held her breath now and just looked at me…and waited.
I wasn’t sure how to say it, so I just blurted it out. “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?”
We both laid there, holding each other, not saying anything, just staring at the ceiling. “Why don’t you call your friend Doc Samuels?” she finally said. “Maybe he can help you.”
“That’s a good idea, Kate,” I finally said, then reached over and turned off the light. We held each other until we fell asleep.
Chapter 26: Heart of darkness
We didn’t say much at breakfast. I was glad the kids weren’t up yet. I didn’t want them to know anything about last night.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about all this,” Kate finally said, breaking the silence. “It’s one thing to smash a window, or paint vile words on our house. But someone tried to kill you! These people are really sick—and dangerous!”
I said nothing, but I was thinking the same thing.
“I know we talked about helping Charles, but you could get killed. I never agreed to that, Daniel. I’m scared.”
From the kitchen window, I noticed a dark row of clouds on the horizon. For some reason, they reminded me of the mill smoke in Clairton. I shivered just thinking about that place again. Bile rose up bitter in my throat.
“You know… it’s been twenty years.”
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I said it’s been twenty years, but I can still remember it like it was yesterday.” I kept staring out the window.
“I don’t understand.”
“Twenty years since I was in Pastor Duncan’s office. But I can still see every detail of that room. I can even smell the aftershave he wore. Old Spice. God, I hate that smell. I’m thirty-seven years old, but even now, every time I close my eyes, I still feel like a seventeen-year-old kid getting raped by the one man I trusted.”
I turned and looked at her. “You know, Kate…,” I breathed a long sigh. “…you never really get over something like that. They say you do…, but you don’t. A wounded body can heal, but a broken soul stays broke…, and I’ve spent my entire life trying to undo the damage he did to me.” I sighed again. “Some things… we just carry them forever.”
Chapter 1: A broken winged bird can’t fly
CLAIRTON, PENNSYLVANIA, 1960. I can still see that model airplane I built when I was twelve years old. I was delivering newspapers after school when I first saw it hanging in the window of Thompson’s Hobby Shop. I nearly fell off my bike! Is that what I think it is? Slamming on my brakes, I ran up to the store and pressed my face against the glass. It was! An authentic P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane—just like the one Frankie and I saw John Wayne fly last Saturday at the Clairton Theater. A genuine Flying Tiger—and it’s for sale!
I rode to Thompson’s store the next day after school, and the day after that, and stood on the sidewalk, staring at that beautiful plane.
“You gotta see it, Frankie. I swear it’s the same one the Duke flew when he shot down all those Japs.” Frankie Denardo lived on the same block with me since we started first grade together at Walnut Avenue School.
“I think it is the same one. God, she’s a beaut!” he muttered, staring through the window. “Look at all those decals… and those wings must be two feet wide. I never seen a model plane that big.”
“Me neither, Frankie. And it’s for sale. Can you believe it?”
“I bet it costs a hundred bucks.”
“Naw. I checked and it’s only nine dollars and ninety-nine cents.”
Frankie stepped back from the window and grabbed his bike. “Don’t matter ‘cause you ain’t got ten bucks…” He smirked, “…unless you plan to ask your old man to buy it for Christmas.”
I shrugged, then jumped on my bike. “Yeh, right. I got a better chance asking you for the money.”
Frankie dug into his pocket and pulled out two nickels. “Here you go, Robinson. Merry Christmas!” He shoved them into my coat pocket. “Besides, Mr. Thompson is probably gonna sell that plane to some rich kid from Clairton Heights anyway. So forget about it and go with me to the Clairton Theater. There’s another John Wayne movie playing.”
Sometimes Frankie could be a real pain. I had to get that plane… But how…?
Mr. Thompson is gonna sell that plane to some rich kid in Clairton Heights. That was all I thought about the whole week. Every day after school I rode by the store, just to be sure it was still in the window. By Saturday it was driving me crazy. Maybe there’s some sort of payment plan, ‘cause of Christmas… I biked to Mr. Thompson store, took a deep breath, and walked up to the counter.
Mr. Thompson saw me, but kept talking to his customer. Just then two kids wearing high school letter jackets came in. “I’ll be right with you boys,” he said, nodding toward them. One of them pointed toward my plane and said something.
God, I hoped they’re not gonna buy it!
“That P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane…” I called out to Mr. Thompson, but he didn’t even look at me.
Those high school kids both laughed. I bit my lip.
“Mr. Thompson,” I called out, louder this time. “That P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane you got hanging in the window. It’s still for sale. Right?” He stopped talking to his customer, barely looking my way. “You’re too young for that model, kid. Besides, it’s too expensive for you,” he grumbled and turned away. Those boys laughed again, and my face went red as I walked quickly out of the store.
My plane was all I thought about that night, all day Sunday, and in every Monday class. As soon as the bell rang, I pedaled as fast as I could to Thompson’s Hobby Shop again. “Thank God, it’s still there!” Dropping my bike on the sidewalk, I ran into the store.
“Mr. Thompson! About that fighter plane…”
He groaned. “Look, kid. I told you that plane’s too expensive for you. Don’t waste my time.”
I dug into my pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “Look here!” I said, holding it in front of him. “I make sixty-five cents a week on my paper route. That’s two-dollars and sixty cents a month. That means I can pay for it in four months.”
He shook his head. “Cash only, kid. Come back when you got ten bucks.”
Before I could say another word, he was gone. I stood there, my face hot again, then turned around slowly and left. “I’ll be back in March,” I called out, more for me than him.
I rode past the store two, maybe three times a week. And I saved my newspaper money—sixty-five cents a week, every week through December…, January… Frankie bugged me every Saturday to take in a movie, especially when he saw that John Wayne’s newest movie about Davy Crocket was coming to the Clairton Theater. But I told him no way. February dragged by, and every night I counted my money. Almost there…
Finally, March came. About time!
Early Saturday morning, as soon as Mr. Thompson opened his store, I was standing at the counter, smiling ear to ear. “Remember me? I’m here to buy that P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane you got in the window,” I announced, emptying my peanut butter jar of nickels, dimes and pennies all over his counter.
He looked down at my money, then at me. Slowly, a smile spread across his face. “It’s got a working motor. You’ll need some fuel to go with it. That’s another seventy-nine cents.”
Maybe he was impressed a kid like me saved all that money, like I was one of his regular customers or something. I glanced quickly at my plane in the window one more time, imagining it soaring through the air, then pulled out my last handful of coins, counting them out on the counter without saying a word.
Mr. Thompson scooped up my coins, dropped them all into the register, and slammed shut the drawer. Then he reached for a large box on the shelf behind him and set it in front of me with a THUD! I stared at it, stunned. “You got to put it together, son,” he grunted. “But I gotta warn you, it’s the most difficult model I sell. You sure you want to buy it?”
“No problem, Mr. Thompson.” I reached for my new airplane. “More sure than anything in the whole world.”
He started to walk away, then stopped. “One more thing. The box says it can fly, but I don’t recommend a kid like you try that. If you can build it, just keep it on your dresser or something.”
I nodded, but all I saw was my beautiful P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane flying higher and higher—with me at the controls, just like John Wayne!
Finally, it was all mine!
It wasn’t easy putting it together, especially in the dim light of the 40-watt bulb hanging from my bedroom ceiling. And it didn’t help that our old coal furnace never put out enough heat to reach my room. The cold air blowing through my cracked window stiffened my fingers, making it nearly impossible to cut all those hundred little balsa wood pieces. More than once I dropped one of them and had to grope frantically all over the floor in the dark. I swore at that bulb every time it flickered and I made the wrong cut.
“There’s gotta be a better way…” I muttered, blowing on my fingers to keep them warm. “I got it!” I draped a blanket over the window to block the cold, then snuck out to the garage and switched out the 100-watt bulb above my dad’s work bench. He was too drunk most of the time to ever use any of his tools anyway.
Now I could finally build my beautiful plane
First, I fitted the balsa wood fuselage together, slowly cutting each piece, then gluing them together with a special hardener for extra strength. The wings took forever because the spars had to be cut perfect, then pinned to the guide sheet while I glued a dozen ribs between them. The silk paper skin was even harder because it kept tearing. Finally, I realized I needed to sand the balsa wood real smooth, like it said in the instructions. This time I didn’t tear a single piece when I wrapped it over the fuselage and wings.
For some reason the next instruction said to brush everything with water, but the morning after I did it, the skin had shrunk and fit perfect, not a single wrinkle on the whole plane. I didn’t know what EZ Dope was, but the instructions said to paint the skin with it, and the next morning The paper skin felt as hard as metal—and shiny, too.
Now it was ready for paint. I picked a camouflage color, then added the decals, and even a shark’s mouth on the nose, exactly like John Wayne’s plane. And now my P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane looked… perfect! I stepped back, smiling a long time.
I don’t recommend you fly it. More for display. But I bet it could…
I need to show it to someone. But who? 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 new airplane in front of him.
He didn’t look up, but just took a long drink from his beer and kept staring at the baseball game on the television.
“It’s an authentic P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane. You know, a Flying Tiger, 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 answer, or even look at me. “Fuckin’ Pirates,” was all he muttered before swilling another long drink from his bottle, then wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
“Mr. Thompson said it was too hard for someone my age, but I built it all myself. It wasn’t easy to put the frame together ‘cause it’s made of balsa wood and covered with a silk paper I brushed with special stuff to make it real hard. Want to see all the decals?” I turned it around slowly, making sure the authentic shark’s mouth faced him. “It’s not one of those cheap planes with rubber bands. This one’s got a real motor, and it can fly maybe a hundred feet in the air. You guide it with wires that attach to the wings. But I’m 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?” Maybe he’ll like that.
After what seemed like forever, he slammed the bottle 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 felt my lip tremble and my eyes burn wet with tears, like he just punched me hard in the stomach. I quickly turned away and wiped my face. Without saying another word, I walked out of the room and went straight to the backyard. 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. Grabbing my father’s Zippo lighter from my pocket, I flipped open the lid, hit the striker twice to get a steady flame and held it under the tail until the oil paint on the skin ignited. Then I launched my wonderful new 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, it 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 as the acrid smoke from my beautiful burning plane drifted toward me, but this time I didn’t shed a single tear. I never built another model airplane.
It was my sixteenth birthday when Frankie showed up at my door and said he was taking me to the Clairton Theater for a John Wayne double feature. 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 together since the seventh grade. He was as close to a best friend as I ever had.
“Happy birthday, Daniel,” he announced holding up two tickets.
I wasn’t expecting anything, even from Frankie. “Sure. Love to see the Duke,” I said.
“You need to tell anyone where you’re going? I mean ‘cause it’s your birthday?”
The old man was passed out on the couch again, and neither of my brothers cared much what I did today.
And Mum…she 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. She was better when Grandma Emma was alive. I was maybe five or six, and Billy wasn’t even born then. I didn’t remember much about her, just that she had blue eyes like Mum and me. But what I did remember is Mum would take Robert and me to Grandma’s house when the old man was on one of his benders. She always made this raspberry cake for us. We even picked the berries for her in the backyard, and that made us feel real special. God, I loved those visits. But when she died…Mum just wasn’t the same after that. The neighbor kids all said she was crazy. I was too young to know what crazy meant the first time it happened. But after a half dozen trips to Woodville State Hospital over the past ten years, I understood all too well now.
“Nah. It’ll be okay.”
Four hours later, the Duke was all we talked about as we biked down Wilson Street to Walnut Avenue. “How tall do you think John Wayne is, Frankie. Six-two?”
“Nah. Six-four. I read that in a magazine. That’s why Maureen O’Hara was so crazy about him in that movie. Tall guys get all the girls.”
“Yeh, Frankie. Maybe we’ll both be as tall as the Duke by our senior year. Then we’ll get all the girls. too.”
My brother Robert greeted us in the alley behind our house. “Hey, shit head. Where you two been?”
Frankie gave him the finger and nodded toward me. “See you tomorrow,” and pedaled down the alley.
“Goddammit, woman! What the hell’s wrong, you stupid bitch?” the old man screamed from the house, obviously really mad about something—or nothing. It didn’t matter.
“What set him off this time?” I asked, dropping my bike by the fence.
“Who cares?” Robert glared at the 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. He always got the brunt of the old man’s anger for any reason, real or imagined. Like closing a door too hard. That was the worst thing we
“Fuckin’ bitch. Get outta the way!” the old man screamed again. I looked at Robert, but he ignored me, picking up a rock and throwing it hard at Mrs. Martini’s cat in the alley. It squealed and scrambled up the maple tree beside her house. Mrs. Martini lived next door and complained about everything we did. She was sitting on her porch, as usual, and she yelled something. But he ignored her too.
“God, I can’t stand living with him!” Robert shouted. He grabbed another rock and hurled it down the alley, this time even harder.
“That’s it!” He 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. Most of the time, I paid no attention to him.
“I’m going to Frankie’s house.” I grabbed my bike. But Robert caught my arm and jerked me back.
“You really don’t get it, do you?” He nearly spit the words at me. “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 him 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?” When I still didn’t answer, he squeezed my arm. “I didn’t think so.”
I tried to pull away, but he squeezed harder. “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 pushed me back, grabbed another rock and threw it toward Mrs. Martini’s house. “Brutto figlio di puttana bastardo,” she yelled at Robert, but he just muttered something about foreigners, gave her the finger and stomped 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 had tried to seduce. He always 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 Robert never listened to me. He walked into the living room where the old man was watching the Pirates game on television and finishing another beer. His eyes were glassy, a sure sign he was pretty drunk already.
“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 his throat, and he swallowed hard. 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 he 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.
My brother spent most of Saturday afternoon nervously getting ready for his date. I was standing in front of the mirror pasting my hair with Brylcream, when he opened the bathroom door without knocking, like he always did. “I need to take a shower.”
He pushed by me and turned on the water. He did that a lot, though most of the time I ignored it. 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.
Yet he had a way of knowing how to get under my skin, then jabbing until I reacted. He knew 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. But I hated my freckles even more, and he reminded me of them every chance he got. “While you’re at it, try scrubbing off those face farts,” he said, pulling back the curtain and stepping into the tub.
“Screw you, Robert,” I shot back too quickly. But he just 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 two hours later and found Robert standing in front of the mirror in our bedroom, I’d already forgotten what he said about my freckles. “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 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 saw the old man 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, trying several times to light it. He mumbled something about his lighter, yanked open the drawer and fumbled through it until he found a match, then slowly lit his cigarette. His eyes narrowed as he took a long drag, then slumped back into his chair, grabbing his beer from the table, all while Robert stood in front of him and seethed.
We all learned early on never to cross the old man, especially when he was watching the Pirates game. All those years working in the mill had hardened his muscles, and his temper, to the level that we all knew to give him a wide berth, even when slouched drunk in his chair. Robert never talked about it, but I still remember that one time he changed the channel when the old man went back to the kitchen for another beer. He hit Robert so hard with his fist that it was two weeks before he could see out of his left eye. But now Robert looked ready to avenge every single abuse over the past eighteen years. His jaw clenched even tighter and his eyes bulged wide, all while his face turned crimson.
“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 lunged for the key on 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, nearly hitting me in the head. I saw him angry lots of times, but not like this. I couldn’t move. I stood there while he stumbled past me and out the door after Robert, who was now struggling to unlock the car door. The old man grabbed him, but Robert spun and knocked him to the ground, then jumped in the car, slamming the door shut and locking it.
The old man staggered to his feet and yanked the door handle so hard again and again I thought it would break. “Open this goddamn door or um gonna bust it open!”
Mum came out of her room and walked past me to the yard. I followed her. “Can’t you do something?” I asked, but she had that same frightened look I saw too many times. I didn’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 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 shouted again and stumbled to the front of the car. Even in his drunken stupor, somehow he managed to unlatch the hood, yanking it open. Climbing now on the bumper, he grabbed for the coil wire. “I’ll teach you to steal my fuckin’ car!”
Billy came out of the house and stood behind Mum, shaking and holding onto her dress.
Robert finally got the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life. Slamming the transmission into reverse, he floored the accelerator and careened down the street with the old man still standing on the bumper, while desperately 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 because I didn’t know what to do now. I just held my breath and prayed while Mum grabbed Billy. None of us moved, or even breathed as he limped by, 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, so we sat down with her and stared at our house, hoping, praying the old man wouldn’t come out again.
“You were right, Robert,” I mumbled. “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. Billy and I looked at each other, then 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, worried what would happen to us now. It must have been a couple hours later. I’m not sure when. It was still dark outside when Robert asked of no one in particular, like it was something he’d been thinking about all night, “Ever wonder why 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. That 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 surrounded by empty and broken bottles, he walked down the hall to the kitchen where he found Mum. She was sitting at the table with the same dirty dishes that had been left there for days, staring out the window like she did most of the time. On her lap was Grandma’s old recipe book. I thought she had been looking through it again, like she always did when she was upset. It seemed to make her feel better.
“I’m glad you’re up,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.”
She didn’t 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 nodded toward the living room. “I’m leaving. I’ve had enough of him. I gotta go.”
“Where? What are you going to do?” She looked up at Robert now, like she finally heard him.
“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. Grabbing my hand, he shook it. “Take care of her for me,” he nodded toward the old man. Then he opened the door and left.
Mum didn’t say anything, but I knew what she was thinking. I saw that frightened look too many times. All of us were going to pay now for what Robert did. I wanted to leave too, but I was just sixteen, with two years left in high school. I couldn’t join the Army. I had nowhere to go.
“Don’t worry, Mum,” was all I said, but I was scared too.
She didn’t say anything, but just pulled Grandma’s recipe book close to her.