Nana always said the Lord works in mysterious ways. Every time she would say that, I would think of Darrell Foskey. If it hadn't been for Darrell, I don't know where I might've ended up. Probably tossed around in a system of Foster homes just like the clothes did in the dryer the night we first met Darrell. He came into our lives thanks to a jammed quarter at the Laundromat. As the night manager, Darrell saved the quarter and won my mama's heart all at the same time.
I was eight that summer day in 1971 when he moved to the apartment with us. The window air conditioner made a rattling sound as it fought the heat that Darrell let through the door. He put down a water-stained box filled with records long enough to snatch the G.I. Joe figure from my hands. The smell of his soured tongue rolled over me the same way he rolled G.I. Joe's head between his fingers.
"Boy, what you doing playing with dolls?" Red lines outlined brown pupils and when he smiled I saw the chipped tooth that he claimed was a sign of toughness. "Hey, just kidding, big guy." When Darrell flung the action figure, I jumped to avoid being hit by G.I. Joe. Little did I know then how I'd keep on jumping to avoid Darrell.
Mama was as shocked as I was seven weeks later when Darrell quit his job at the Laundromat and announced he was taking us out for supper. "Daddy, that's what I love about you. You just go with the gut," Mama said. She nibbled his ear and talked in that baby way I hated. "That man said he'll be at JC's party tonight with a new stash. Let's go on down there, Daddy."
They didn't see me roll my eyes big as Dallas right in front of them. He sure wasn't her daddy, and I'd throw up before I was fixing to call him any such thing. Before I could ease out of the beanbag and make it to my room, I heard Mama giggle.
"Boy, go on in there and get ready," Darrell yelled. "You gonna get yourself a steak dinner tonight."
Darrell was still going on about Canada and all the good jobs he could get working the pipelines. The pretty waitress reappeared and put another drink before him. Although I couldn't bring myself to look her directly in the eye, I liked the way she smiled and winked at me. Darrell licked the juice remaining on the steak knife and washed it down with a loud smack.
More than usual I was nervous around Darrell tonight. Not so much because of his erratic behavior -- I was getting used to the outbursts. But the restaurant was too much. Casting my eyes across the room, I watched a group of women Nana's age laugh while one of them opened brightly wrapped gifts. I couldn't help wondering how they would take Darrell if he got on one of his "spells," as Mama called them.
The more glasses of gold liquid Darrell consumed, the more he bragged about all the gold he could find in Canada. "There's an ol' boy who used to work with me already up there. They tell me he's making fifteen dollars an hour on that pipeline." Darrell licked the excess from the A-1 bottle top and slammed it on the table. I flinched and looked over at the ladies, who were so caught up admiring a gift of crocheted dinner mats that they didn't notice.
The pretty waitress appeared again and poured tea into my glass. "Boy, you best leave off the tea and go to studying your plate," Darrell said with a point of his knife. The waitress glanced at Darrell and then smiled back at me.
"Go on, Brandon, and eat your steak now," Mama said. She lit a cigarette and gazed across the restaurant. "Don't start no problems."
Picking at the slab of meat surrounded by pink juice, I rested my case. Mama knew I wanted chicken. But Darrell was determined and ordered steak for all of us. "I'm not very hungry."
"I'm not very hungry," Darrell whined and squinched up his ruddy face. "What's the matter, this place ain't good enough for you? Not good enough for the little king?"
I stiffened my back and dug my nails into the vinyl seat. Trying to gauge how to respond, I looked at Mama, but she was staring at her reflection in the tinted window and flicking the ends of her newly blonde hair. "Just eat the steak, Brandon."
"We ain't leaving until you eat ever bit of that steak, you hear me." Elbows planted on the plastic red-and-white tablecloth, Darrell enforced his message with another point of the knife.
"It's got icky stuff coming out of it." I followed the tip of the knife up to the brown eyes. It was that look. The same vengeful stare that Mama excused as the dark side in each of the two men she officially met at the Justice of the Peace plus the four she had let in without signed papers. The same dark side that made Darrell throw plates, punch holes in our apartment wall, and kick in my bedroom door.
Mama blew cigarette smoke at the plastic gold lamp dangling above the table. "Brandon, just don't, okay."
Darrell threw his napkin on the plate and steak juice stained the once white material. "Most kids'd be happy to eat at a nice restaurant, but no, not you. Not the king. You little no good piece of ..."
"Oh, Daddy, don't. Don't get all riled up. Not tonight. He's just being a kid." Mama leaned into Darrell and whined, "Come on, shug ..."
Excerpted from Slow Way Home © Copyright 2003 by Michael Morris. Reprinted with permission by Harper San Francisco, an imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved.
Slow Way Home: A Novel