My wife once told me I was fortunate growing up, because lots ot stepdads’ beverage of choice is Wild Turkey, while my stepdad’s was LaCroix sparkling water, but have you ever been screamed at by a sunburned, semi-pro golf player with raspberry LaCroix on his breath? That shit is terrifying.
My stepdad never hit me, but I feared him as though he did, and god have mercy on your soul if you drank his last cold Mountain Dew.
“Those are Steve’s Oatmeal Cream Pies, but you can have a Nutty Bar,” is something I used to say on the regular. “We have to be really, really quiet, Steve is watching Star Trek: Next Generation,” is something else I used to have to say to friends if they visited while my stepdad was home and unemployed.
As much as my stepdad couldn’t stand most people, he was morally opposed to fishing and hunting, which he knew that my grandfather and I bonded over, but he always said that he wanted to buy a gun. He rarely talked politics, but he idolized Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris, angry white men who wouldn’t hesitate to break the bones of young street tough stereotypes.
My stepdad wasn’t a fighter, though. “Only fight someone if you can get away with it, and only hit someone where it won’t leave a mark,” is advice I received on more than one occasion.
I think my stepdad’s greatest fear was being sued, although he would often threaten to sue at the drop of a hat, like a seasoned litigator, and yet he wouldn’t hesitate to put the lives of others in serious danger.
My stepdad took great personal offense to any driver who dared pass him on the road. He’d swerve to cut them off and hit the gas, oftentimes forcing them into a spontaneous game of chicken. When the offending driver would inevitably retreat, and then begin to honk and tailgate, my stepdad would slam on the brakes. He’d roll down his window, spit a massive wad of phlegm, give the other driver a stiff middle finger, and bludgeon them with a stream of obscenities like I’ve heard from no one else since.
My stepdad introduced me to the words “motherfucker” and “cunt,” but he used them sparingly, and with great intent.
In a way, you could say that my stepdad taught me the value of words. But he also taught me the value of Sergio Leone.
My stepdad was obsessed with Westerns and all things Clint Eastwood, and fancied himself a bit of a modern day cowboy.
Amid a trip to Wisconsin Dells, between the Ducks and Tommy Bartlett’s Robot World, we stopped to take an old fashioned family photograph, and Steve, of course, demanded the Western backdrop. He and my brother were a couple of gunslingers, my mother was dressed like a curvy saloon harlot (for lack of a better word), and I, the adopted one, was the “bandito,” draped in an itchy wool poncho. When I recently found the lone copy of this photograph in one of my mother’s many photo albums, I read the inscription on the back, “Our one and only family vacation,” and I laughed until I cried.
My stepdad played trumpet and taught himself how to play guitar. He could play acoustic versions of Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk” and Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” which he employed to temporarily regain the affections of my mother.
For all intents and purposes, my stepdad disowned me when I was seventeen years old. He and my mother were embroiled in a nasty divorce, which only occurred after my mother birthed my two sisters, who were fathered by two different men who were not her husband. My brother remained in the custody of his father (my stepdad), while my mother raised her two young daughters, alone, in a studio apartment, and I moved in with my maternal grandparents. It was around this time that I received a handwritten letter from my stepdad, telling me goodbye, forever. I often think about my stepdad’s letter, and I’ll feel guilty for running away from him, but then I think about if I could ever do the same to my daughter, who’s presently about the same age I was when I received my stepdad’s letter, and I think to myself, fuck that dude.
I haven’t spoken to my stepdad in about twenty years, but I did briefly see him, once, several years ago, when I was visiting home. My wife and I had stopped at the grocery store, to pick up some beer, and when I was exiting the parking lot, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw a familiar face. It was my stepdad, and he was riding a fucking motorcycle, instead of the broken down station wagon or minivan he used to drive.
My 33-year-old brother still lives with his father, and so even though I haven’t communicated with him in roughly twenty years, I still know quite a bit about him, or at least I know what my brother tells me about him.
I know that he’s an angry, miserable, and paranoid man. I know that he lives in darkness. I know that he leaves the dishes unwashed, for weeks at a time, and that he cooks by the greasy yellow light of the filthy microwave oven. I know that when he makes oven fries, he pours a layer of vegetable oil in the pan, and the kitchen fills with smoke as the oil spatters and burns. I know that he’s still covetous of his Mountain Dew and Oatmeal Cream Pies. I know that he has a closet, which he padlocks, that is full of many of the childhood toys that I left in his house when I moved in with my grandparents, over twenty years ago. I know that he has a practice putting green in the master bathroom.
My stepdad is a salesman, and apparently he’s a good salesman. The website of the local store that he works for, where he’s worked for over two decades, is full of customer testimonials, thanking him for his excellent service and salesmanship. But he didn’t always make his living selling flat-screen TVs and refrigerators. Over the span of his adult life, Steve served in the air force, but he also worked, early on, with computers, and did electronics repair. In the mid-80s, he attended night school, and earned a degree from the local technical college, but he also installed carpet and drywall, and later on spent a fair amount of time receiving unemployment, but not for a lack of desire to work. Sometimes the jobs just don’t come, no matter how badly you want them, as I’ve come to know all too well, myself, and in the meanwhile, while you’re waiting for the phone to ring, you might as well tear open a box of Oatmeal Creme Pies, crack an ice cold LaCroix, and enjoy a few episodes of MASH.