TROY: Not me. I ain’t gonna owe nobody nothing if I can help it. Miss a payment and they come and snatch it right out your house. Then what you got? Now, soon as I get two hundred dollars clear, then I’ll buy a TV. Right now, as soon as I get two hundred and sixty-four dollars, I’m gonna have this roof tarred.
Troy responds to his son, Cory, after Cory suggests they buy a TV on a payment plan. As an extremely practical man, Troy views a TV as just a luxury. Besides, he is very careful with money and fearful of potential future misfortune. His attitude toward money comes from a childhood of extreme poverty. The fact that his son appears more financially carefree shows that Troy has provided a more comfortable upbringing for his son than he had himself.
TROY: The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something ain’t nobody can take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.
Troy’s son Cory is being recruited to play college football, but Troy never believes that the offer has any realistic purpose. Here, he offers what he considers good advice on how Cory can make a good life for himself. Having played baseball before the game was integrated and still seeing “colored” players underutilized, he doubts Cory has the potential for a sports career. Troy wants something better for Cory than his own job of garbage man but never quite grasps what college could do for Cory, the concept being so far outside his own experience.
TROY: I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only decent thing that ever happened to me. I wish him that. But I don’t wish him a thing else from my life. I decided seventeen years ago that boy wasn’t getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in the sports.
After Rose points out that one reason Cory plays football is to emulate his athlete father, Troy reacts. To Troy, sports represent nothing but a broken promise. He was talented but too old to play by the time teams integrated. Troy wants to protect Cory from the indignities he assumes Cory will suffer. Moreover, playing baseball never benefited Troy financially. He wants Cory to pursue a practical career. Unfortunately, what Troy wants for Cory goes directly against Cory’s dream.
TROY: Both my eyes were swollen shut. I layed there and cried. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. The only thing I knew was the time had come for me to leave my daddy’s house. And right there the world suddenly got big. And it was a long time before I could cut it down to where I could handle it. Part of that cutting down was when I got to the place where I could feel him kicking in my blood and knew that the only thing that separated us was the matter of a few years.
Troy tells the story of his early life. He and his father, a mean, poor sharecropper with eleven children, fought over a girl when Troy was fourteen. At that point Troy knew that he and his father could no longer live together, so he had to make his way in the world alone. When, years later, Troy realized that his father was not all-powerful, just a man similar to himself, Troy found the world less scary.
TROY: Started stealing. First it was food. Then I figured, hell, if I steal money I can buy me some food. Buy me some shoes too! One thing led to another. Met your mama. I was young and anxious to be a man. Met your mama and had you. What I do that for? Now I got to worry about feeding you and her.
Rumors about the better life African Americans could make for themselves in the North proved to be exaggerated for Troy, a teenager with no money, connections, or education. Setting Troy’s story in historical context, he arrived in Pittsburgh during a post–World War I recession/depression, so jobs would have been particularly hard to find then. Here, Troy reveals that although he turned to crime, he displayed a moral code: Once he had a child, he supported the boy and his mother.
TROY: It’s just . . . She gives me a different idea . . . a different understanding about myself. I can step out of this house and get away from the pressures and problems . . . be a different man. I ain’t got to wonder how I’m going to pay the bills or get the roof fixed. I can just be a part of myself that I ain’t never been.
Troy explains part of the reason why he is having an affair with Alberta, a young woman he met at a bar. He considers their carefree, fun interactions a relief valve for all the pressure he feels to be the responsible family man most of the time. He is having a classic midlife crisis, wanting to be a different person or go back to his younger self. Unfortunately for Troy, while looking for escape from responsibility, he simply adds to his burden.
TROY: I was safe. I had me a family. A job. I wasn’t gonna get that last strike. I was on first looking for one of them boys to knock me in. To get me home. . . . Then when I saw that gal . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand after eighteen years I wanted to steal second. . . . I’m trying the best I can to explain it to you. It’s not easy for me to admit I’ve been standing in the same place for eighteen years.
Troy often explains himself using baseball metaphors. In his mind, his life has been safe in recent years. After his miserable childhood and stint in prison, nothing else truly bad will happen to him. But safe has started to seem boring and not like an accomplishment after all. In pursuing Alberta, Troy was reaching for something more exciting than his current life. Expecting this explanation to garner sympathy from his wife seems particularly tone-deaf.
TROY: I told you I ain’t signed nothing, woman! The only thing I signed was the release form. Hell, I can’t read, I don’t know what they had on that paper! I ain’t signed nothing about sending Gabe away.
Troy signed a form sending Gabriel to a mental hospital. While Troy insists that he did not sign the form, he is illiterate, so he has no justification for his insistence. Troy may mean that he did not intend to send his brother away. To him, his intent counts for more than it does in reality. Likewise, he intends his affair to be a fun fling but winds up with Alberta “stuck onto” him.
TROY: You got to get by where? This is my house. Bought and paid for. In full. Took me fifteen years. And if you wanna go in my house and I’m sitting on the steps . . . you say excuse me. Like your mama taught you.
Troy is drinking on the porch steps, and Cory says he needs to get by without making a polite request. Cory is angry over his father’s affair, and to his mind, Troy “don’t count around here no more.” With his son, Troy still insists on being respected as head of the family and, in his most important role, as provider of shelter. But he mentions Rose, probably knowing her influence has more weight with Cory.
ROSE: . . . Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t . . . and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don’t know if he was right or wrong . . . but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm. He wasn’t always right. Sometimes when he touched he bruised. And sometimes when he took me in his arms he cut.
Cory is still angry with his father after Troy’s death. But Rose can recognize Troy’s good and bad qualities. She insists that Troy always wanted what was best for Cory. He definitely did not want Cory to take after himself in all respects despite what Cory believed. As Rose explains, Troy meant well, but his own limitations, including an insistence on being obeyed, meant that his actions and choices were not always correct.