Tip of the hat in appreciation to Roger K. Miller, a writer of exceptional skill with which I share a hometown, Binghamton, New York. Roger's offhand comment about the old days of novels serialized in periodicals got me thinking. I suggest that anyone who admires great writing should click here to check out Roger's Amazon Author Page.
If you're new here or just a horse of a different color, you can start this story from Chapter One by clicking here.
From there, you can follow the links from chapter to chapter.
Beverly, younger than any of our previous live-ins with big breasts, fully rounded hips, red hair and blushing cheeks, filled Marion’s place within a week. Another thing setting her apart from Roadster, Marion and Clara was that she showed no evidence of being a refugee from the psychiatric frontier. She was the single mother of a four year old daughter with whom she shared the alleged master bedroom off the kitchen.
Of course, we knew next to nothing about where Dad found Beverly or why he let a sixth child to join the crew. Desperate as well as practical, he probably recruited the first reasonable prospect from a newspaper ad, figuring we’d sort the baggage out on the fly. His responsibility for five kids allowed no gaps, no days off, never the luxury of mulling things over.
The era of Beverly and her Brat Daughter was short-lived. Four boys, all rowdy and raw, teenagers now, discolored the pleasures of looking after our motherless little sister as well as one of her own.
What I remember about the day she left was a conference behind closed doors in the alleged master bedroom. She confronted Dad before he had a chance to take off the tie that hung from his neck all day.
Hungry and restless, we waited, trying to hear words, maybe a complete sentence leaking under the door, for the mystery to be solved. Dad finally swung open the door, controlled rage on his face while Beverly packed a suitcase fully opened on the bed behind him. It looked like she’d barely paused to explain. I can’t remember my special contributions, but Beverly cited my oldest brother and me as impossible to handle. I can’t tell you more because my memory eraser was working overtime in those days.
Dad’s anger and our punishment were soon compacted and put away as history, but Beverly’s legacy changed our lives, springing us from a kind of vault, at least a little, from our uncommon isolation. Because she had a child of her own, Beverly persuaded Dad to put in a telephone, a tool he hadn’t let unsettle domestic tranquility since Ma Bell forced him to pay up for Mom’s long distance gabbing or strategizing or whatever it was she’d done on her way out.
The telephone changed our lives.
Without a housekeeper assigned to screening calls, a voice from the past, now dragged down by a southern drawl, found its way back into our lives.
“How you doin’, darlin’? I sure missed you,” were the first words Mom said to me when I got my turn on the line, last of course.
How can I write this without seeming maudlin? Straight up: this was the first time I felt that anyone loved me, even a little, in five years. I was twelve years old, and intermittent showers ended one hell of a drought.
Dad looked over his shoulder, anger simmering, when he followed Beverly out to the car, her luggage in one hand, her daughter on the other. Later, he’d vent his rage, once again, with his thick, black leather belt, but change was coming anyway. The unintended seeds of revolution leaked out behind our last nanny.
With our ages spread from ten to sixteen by now, Dad decided to spare himself another search. We were old enough to fend for ourselves from the time he backed his car out of the garage in the morning to when he coasted down the driveway in the early evening. He seldom left for anything else.
Less important housekeeping ended with Beverly, but the essentials we picked up between us. My sister cooked with the assistance of my brothers, all of us taking turns with dirty dishes. Beds were left unmade, and laundry got hauled by Dad to the laundromat across from the Pig Stand on Fairview Street. We shared responsibilities, but there was little balance. Fourth son with a bag of resentment hauled around like an invisible knapsack, I refused to do almost anything unless coerced. By now, anger became so routine, it was invisible.
When no adequate emotional fabric causes people living under the same roof to blend and stitch together, individuals emerge roughened by vagaries, irregularities exposed, unprotected, traits exaggerated. Childhood shreds like duck down, the making of a human accelerates. Adolescence is like trying on every possibility, yoking yourself temporarily to the ones that fit, then flipping off to the next. Mostly, you step out. In families left adrift, you take giant steps without guides. You risk.
It was a paradoxical time when I discovered both Jesus and disgust. I escaped my father’s rath one Sunday evening by exiting through a second floor window and dropping down off the front porch. The paradox? I hit the ground in time to jump into Mr. Johnson’s station wagon. My sister and the Johnson clan were waiting to be taken to a church meeting. We sought comfort in Jesus’s embrace. And then some.
For the short time it lasted, my passion for church, the feelings I had listening to the preacher roar about our savior, cushioned my fall with a place to belong. That’s what church does for most people. Not so many buy the whole narrative, but the gravity of spiritual zeal gets you like a full moon. For me, it had the additional appeal of being the one place where I wasn’t the loser.
To be honest, I also had a crush on a girl there. She was memorable only for that since I never sucked up the courage to talk to her. But it was also where I met the Miller brothers, a pair of guys prowling along as close to the edge as I was.
So many people went to church then, it wasn't odd to find rebellious outsiders like Roger and Mark slouching in pews. Maybe the gravity had them too, or maybe fate got bored and threw us together to get some action going.
“I ain’t going home. My father wants to kill me,” I told Roger, the older brother, as we walked out of Fairview Methodist into the evening chill.
“What did you do?”
Parents were always right, then, the question natural.
“The usual. I got mad at my brothers and yelled at them, but it’s always my fault. When we get in fights, I always get blamed because I’m the youngest.”
“Fuck ‘em,” Roger advised.
“Yeah, fuck ‘em,” Mark agreed.
Thick brown hair curled in a defiant wave falling down his forehead, Roger looked like the prototype bad boy. Mark was more tame, but he smirked a lot, like he knew something that you didn’t.
“Why don’t you come and stay with us?” Roger suggested. “ We’ve got a place. Fuck ‘em.”
Across from the church’s dirt parking lot, fast emptying, the three of us stood under a light with our thumbs out. Three’s a threatening number. It took a while, but we finally caught a ride out past Kirkwood, almost into Pennsylvania. The Millers lived in a brown shingled house, two stories, on a road losing itself in the tangle of rounded foothills and stream cut valleys.
“Mom’s still up,” Mark noticed.
Roger said, “You can stay in the trailer.”
A house trailer was parked on the edge of their front yard, unlocked and convenient, dream space, furnished like a normal home made up of one long room.
“You’ll be okay,” Roger promised. “Nobody uses the place for now, but if anybody asks, you ran away and you broke in because you were cold. Me and Mark, we don’t know who you are. You dig?”
With my only alternative being hitching all the way back home and getting the hell beat out of me for my efforts, I accepted their offer, huddling up against the cold under light covers, tired enough to sleep through earthquakes and tornadoes.
The earliest slice of morning edged through the nearest small, rectangular window. I pulled back a curtain. Winter swept its long arm back, tossing an inch of fresh snow on the ground overnight. Mark and Roger’s father had parked his semi-trailer rig in the muddy driveway on the other side of their yard. Everything was quiet with snow, but the rig seemed to give off a kind of steam.
I didn’t know what time it was, but the countryside around me had barely awakened. Standing by the roadside as mist backfilled the night, you could see spring, even in the snow. The ground cover incomplete, patches of grass broke the surface. A roadside gutter trickled along unhindered by ice. For a kid as alone as you can be, I felt weirdly happy. Independence juices joy.
One ride got me all the way into the city, and as I walked up Broad Street toward Robinson, kids were already hopping down the steps of a yellow school bus outside East Junior. Blue sky had begun to crack through the overcast.
I’d have been on one of those buses, half-assed awake, if I hadn’t declared my independence. It found my friend Wally and corralled him into our usual practice of walking around the parameter of the school repeatedly until it was time to migrate inside for homeroom. We weren’t the only ones participating in this ritual. The less restless, the more confident kids gathered instead in tight groups we curled past.
Wally was tall and skinny and had a chin straight out of the Wicked Witch of the West. We were each other’s only good friend at school. Wally had, by far, the best baseball card collection I’d ever seen, and knowing I was an addict, he’d let me finger through the player poses and statistics over the summer.
Telling him the story of how I’d run away from home and stayed overnight in the Miller brothers’ trailer, I continued with the rest, the ramshackle spree I’d gone on with them the weekend before.
It had been one of those days in the mix between winter and spring when a warm south wind encourages with a promise of pushing the gray and cold away. Roger, Mark and I wandered back toward home, walking the tracks of the Erie-Lackawanna right of way paralleling the highway, mostly hidden from Upper Court Street beneath an embankment.
We tried to balance on a rail or stride evenly from one tie to the next.
“Bet you can’t break that with one shot,” Mark challenged.
I’d been telling them what a great pitcher I was in Little League.
Enough loose rocks for a million boyhoods firmed up the track bed. I grabbed one and fired it into the tall, round signal. Glass shattered and spilled onto the ground.
“See?” I said.
“You broke the railroad signals?” Wally asked. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“We wanted to see if we could derail a train.”
Roger, Mark and I found spikes laying loose along the way and began strategically laying them across the rails. In my head, a theatrical vision of a big diesel flying off the rails into the muddy flats by the river ran in a loop. Tiring of that and with no train coming to test our experiment, we broke a couple more signals as we walked.
Eventually, the tracks curled along a broad field that the Susquehanna flooded every spring.
“There was that house down next to the river,” I told Wally, “the one with the high foundation to keep it above the floods…”
“They don’t lock the door.”
Not so strange. My family didn’t lock our doors either.
The Miller brothers and I climbed up the steps and went inside.
“Stupid not to lock the door,” Roger said, then smirked, “so I didn’t have to break down the fucker.”
There wasn’t much to see, but the thrill of breaking in vibrated. Roger took coins from a coffee can, filled his pocket and, then, found a bottle of some kind of liquor.
“Have some,” he said, handing it to me after taking the first gulp.
“Jesus! Tastes like liquified garbage! God. How the fuck do they drink this stuff?”
“Did you get drunk…?” Wally wanted to know.
“No. I stopped right there. It was the worst tasting stuff I ever swallowed.”
By now, we were a few blocks from school and playing hooky by default.
Skipping school was a novel idea and, like running away from home, exhilarating.
“After a while, we should hitchhike out to my house and get some food. I’m starving. I haven’t had anything.”
I wasn’t a fully realized runaway yet.
Around the time it dawned on Wally and me that, without school, we didn't have any other way to knock down the day, around ten o’clock, a city cop rounded us up and took us to the main station downtown to sort out who we were.
Wally was older and bigger than me, so I told the cops that he forced me to skip school. Wally returned the favor by sharing the story of my railway antics with the Miller brothers.
I also told them that I ran away because my father beat me, putting Dad in the miserable position of having to defend himself in front of me and the cops on his lunch break. Lucky for me, he hadn’t heard about the railroad yet.
That all came out later in Family Court when I sat between him and his lawyer, the one who colluded with him to strip Mom of her rights, while the Miller boys testified under oath about how I’d led them, Svengali-like, into crime. Their tattooed truck driver father was on hand, too, and took a moment to explain how hard it was, him being on the road so much, to keep his boys from “falling in with characters like that one,” nodding unpleasantly at me.
Just what I needed, I thought, two more brothers to pin me into a corner. Roger and Mark were in clean-cut mode, but I understood that. Their father was buying. Mine wasn’t.
Dad believed he’d already figured out my motives.
“Your mother put you up to it, didn’t she?”
The question was rhetorical. I didn’t answer because he was crazy. Red hot nuts were in his eyes.
“See,” Val reminded me. “It was your mother, not you, he looked at.”
“You know, it changed later, but when she first started calling us, she didn’t have a bad word to say about him. She barely mentioned him, never put me or anyone else up to anything. Fucking nut job.”
By the time the Family Court case played out, my only three friends were finished, and I was on probation, a juvenile delinquent on the fast track toward state prison. I’d have skidded right in too, if not presented with objective proof that I was a genius.
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