By Matthew Wallenstein
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
In the 1970s my father worked for a few years in the youth detention center. There were a lot of kids there for a lot of reasons. One was Z, 15 or 16 years old. He had delusions, he would get confused. He had his problems and was not bright on top of it. Z was polite and could be kind some of the time, but often snapped and was prone to violence.
Eventually my father left his job at the detention center and worked briefly at the state hospital. He ended up leaving and started buying and selling antique furniture. He enjoyed the job, learning more and more as he went, digging through old houses and barns, the discoveries, the characters he met.
He and mother were living in a former one-room schoolhouse by a river. It was miles outside of town. My mother had recently moved from New Jersey to live with him. The house was at the end of a dirt and gravel driveway up a hill in the woods. It was largely isolated, removed from the world. Their closest neighbor was a quiet man who mostly kept to himself. This was years before I was born, but I would live the first nine years of my life there.
One night, about supper time, there was a knock on the door. My father answered it. At first he didn’t recognize the person standing there. He realized it was Z who was by then in his 20s.
“What are you doing here?” My father said.
“I, I’m hungry. I need to talk to ya.’ I need some advice.”
“Well come on in and tell me what your story is.” He waved his arm in a circle inviting Z to follow him inside.
Z said, “Welp, I was at the prison and they sent me down to the state hospital. They were, uh, they were going to evaluate me.” He said this slowly but plainly. “ I just wanted to get out for a little while. So I threw some boiling water in a guy’s face, one of the workers, and I jumped out the window. The second floor window.”
My father listened to his story. He had no idea how Z had known where he lived or how he could have found out.
“Well, I been gone about four hours and I know they’re lookin’ for me,” Z said. “You know, with the hot water action and escaping.”
The house was at least 5 or 6 miles from the state hospital. He would have had to have gone straight there if he was on foot, or there was a chance he could have hitch hiked.
“I just needed to get out for a little while. I know I’m gonna’ be in trouble.”
“Listen, you know you got to call them up and turn yourself in. Or else I can do it. Because, first of all, you’re in serious serious trouble already, you’re going to be in much worse trouble if you don’t turn yourself in. And I’ll be in serious trouble if I don’t turn you in,” said my father.
“Well, you go ahead and call ‘em, you should turn me in,” said Z.
“I’ll tell you what, I know you’re hungry. Sit down, relax. Once you eat I’ll just drive you down there and drop you off at the front gate. We can call and tell them what time to expect you. We don’t need to tell them anything else. But first you will get dinner. I’ll give you some cigarettes. Then we can head over.”
“Oh that’s good, yeah. I just wanted to get out for a little while.”
So they sat down at the table and they ate. And my father handed him a cigarette. He ended up smoking a few more and my dad just gave him the pack.
“There’s no sense giving ‘em to me because they’ll take ‘em away as soon as I walk in. I won’t even be able to trade ‘em with anybody for anything, because they’re gonna’ take ‘em away. Don’t waste ‘em.”
“But I will take another one.”
They walked outside and got into the car. Smoke rose between Z’s fingers and curled upwards. He sucked at the cigarette and blew smoke out the window. My father drove up past the farm that sold flowers, around the curve of the river, past the store where he bought gas and Cokes and Camels sometimes, to the prison where he dropped off his passenger.