Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Step Out On Nothing'

Cover of 'Step Out On Nothing'


Mustard Seed Faith — With It You Can Move Mountains

Because you have so little faith, I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, "Move from here to there," and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.

-- Matthew 17:20

1969 Baltimore

At age nine I was a fourth-grader in a Catholic school, and the only whore I had ever heard of was the lady in the Bible. That was until one day when, dressed in my school uniform of blue pants, white shirt, and gray and blue striped tie, my mom picked me up and we set out on one of the defining adventures of my young life.

"Get in the car! We're going to that whore's house!"

It couldn't have been more than a ten-minute ride. My mother, who loves to talk, never said a word. We drove up on a busy street lined with row houses, each tipped with Baltimore's famed three-marble steps. I've never considered my mom an athlete, but that day she pushed at the driver's side door like a sprinter leaping off the starting block and quickly made her way to a house with a narrow door and a small diamond-shaped window. She rang the doorbell several times. A pretty woman with long curly brown hair finally answered the door. I was struck by how much she resembled my mother.

"Tell my husband to come out here," my mother yelled.

The woman answered, "I don't know what you're talking about" and slammed the door.

I could see the rage building in my mother's fists and across her face. She backed off the steps and screamed toward a window on the second floor,

"William Pitts! You son of a bitch! Bring your ass outside right now!"

There was dead silence. So she said it again. Louder. If no one inside that house could hear her, the neighbors did. People on the street stopped moving; others started coming out of their homes. My mom had an audience. I stood near the car, paralyzed by shame. Figuring it was her message and not her volume, my mother came up with a new line.

"William Pitts! You son of a bitch! You come outside right now or I will set your car on fire!"

He apparently heard her that time. Much to my surprise, my father, dressed only in his pants and undershirt, dashed out of that house as my mother made her way to his car. She ordered me to move away from her car and get into my father's car. I did. My father was barefoot, and he slipped as he approached my mother. She picked up a brick and took dead aim at my father's head. She missed. He ran to the other side of his car. She retrieved the brick and tried again. She missed. He ran. My parents repeated their version of domestic dodge ball at least a half dozen times. It must have seemed like a game to the gallery of people who watched and laughed. I never said a word. In the front passenger seat of my father's car, I kept my eyes straight ahead. I didn't want to watch, though I couldn't help but hear. My parents were fighting again, and this time in public.

Eventually, my father saw an opening and jumped into the driver's seat of his car. Fumbling for his keys, he failed to close the door. My mother jumped on top of him. Cursing and scratching at his eyes and face, she seemed determined to kill him. I could see her fingers inside his mouth. Somehow my father's head ended up in my lap. The scratches on his face began to bleed onto my white shirt. For the first time since my mother picked me up from school, I spoke. Terrified, I actually screamed.

"Why! What did I do? Wha- wa- wa- wa- wut!"

I'm sure I had more to say, but I got stuck on the word what. Almost from the time I could speak, I stuttered. It seemed to get worse when I was frightened or nervous. Sitting in my dad's car with my parents' weight and their problems pressed against me, I stuttered and cried. It seemed odd to me at that moment, but as quickly and violently as my parents began fighting, they stopped. I guess it was my mother who first noticed the blood splattered across my face and soaked through my shirt. She thought I was bleeding. In that instant, the temperature cooled in the car. It had been so hot. My parents' body heat had caused the three of us to sweat. Fearing they had injured me, my parents tried to console me. But once they stopped fighting, I did what I always seemed to do. I put on my mask. I closed my mouth and pretended everything was all right.

I was used to this — there had been a lot of secrets in our house. My father had been hiding his infidelity. Both parents were putting a good face on marital strife for their family and friends. You see, almost from the time Clarice and William Pitts met, he was unfaithful. Women on our street, in church, those he'd meet driving a cab, and the woman who would eventually bear him a child out of wedlock. I have only known her as Miss Donna. Clarice may have despised the woman, but if ever her name came up in front of the children, she was Miss Donna. The car ride was a tortured awakening for me, but it was just the beginning. The picture our family showed the outside world was beginning to unravel, and when all our secrets began to spill into the open, on the street, in the classroom, and in our church, none of our lives would ever be the same.

Excerpted from Step Out On Nothing by Byron Pitts, by permission of St. Martin's Press.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Byron Pitts