When you’re a kid and you walk in on your stepfather giving another dude a blowjob, nothing’s ever really the same again.
He saw me, the other guy saw me, and as the other guy started to pull up his pants, I ran down the hallway and out the front door, leaving the door open. There was my stepfather’s car, but I didn’t see another car. That must have been a pretty uncomfortable drive back to wherever he had to bring the other guy.
I slept at Greg’s house. I didn’t tell him anything. I didn’t know what it meant yet. I kept seeing my stepfather’s face, that look of awful shame and guilt. I’ve felt that same look in my life. I think I sometimes must look the same way he did, but for different reasons.
Greg and I got stoned. We blew the smoke through a toilet paper tube stuffed with dryer sheets. Then we passed out with the stereo playing Dylan’s Basement Tapes and the weed and bong and toilet paper tube sitting on Greg’s desk. I woke up with the lights flickering on and off and Greg’s mother shouting, “Couple of no-nothings, no-nothings, no-nothings!”
We hadn’t slept through the night. It was only midnight. I had to go back home. One time, when I was in the grocery store with my mother, I saw Greg’s mom take a cantaloupe and smash it on the floor. She had problems like anyone else. I felt bad for adding to them.
My stepfather had fallen asleep on the couch like he usually did when he got home from work and my mother was in bed. He was a machinist. He had different shifts, but preferred the three to twelve because he said that’s how you make a marriage work, give each other space, gather up things to talk about, spend your money on the weekends.
“That’s what your father didn’t understand,” he said. “He got bored and started thinking about a different life than the one he had.”
I guessed that was true. When I saw my father, he did seem happier. He had a girlfriend who he later married. He’d quit smoking. He had a juicer and a book about juicing.
We woke up to the junk trucks roving through the neighborhood. You could hear them rumbling, braking, and backing up. I looked out the window from my bedroom and saw my stepfather dragging the old couch from the basement across the lawn. There was other stuff down there, too. We’d been going through old things for the past few weeks and piling them up in the basement, and I’d help my stepfather carry down the furniture that had begun to wear or take on our stale body odor, and that we knew we couldn’t sell. Now, though, as he struggled with the couch—I could see from the pile that he still had to get the recliner, the old coffee table, and the kitchen chairs—I decided I didn’t want to help him, and I went back to sleep.
Later that morning, my stepfather and mother were in the kitchen drinking coffee. There was an assortment of oversized muffins in a plastic container from the supermarket on the table. I could smell the cheap soap my stepfather used hanging in the mist in the hall. He was showered and dressed and waiting. I’d forgotten that today was his day off. For the last few months the two of us were meant to spend time together, which I didn’t mind, because usually we went out on the water, or if the tide was low, dug for clams at the shore.
“I could’ve used your help this morning, bud,” he said when I sat down.
“You usually don’t sleep so late,” my mother said. “Are you feeling okay?”
I thought she was giving me a way out. She did that sometimes. I think she felt bad about my father leaving, as though it was her fault, and so if there was something I didn’t want to do, she wouldn’t force it on me.
“Sure, he’s feeling okay,” my stepfather said.
What did I know? All I knew was that my stepfather had his mouth on another man’s privates, and that the other man seemed to enjoy it. I was ten years old. What was I thinking? I suppose by my refusing to help him with the furniture, and my reluctance to go, that I was angry, and I was angry because I knew whatever was going on between my stepfather and that man was something I was supposed to keep quiet from my mother.
“Come on, bud,” my stepfather said. “Grab a muffin and get dressed.”
We dug for scallops, clams, and quahogs, either by raking them out or just pushing our hands deep into the thick, wet sand, and feeling around. My stepfather let me use the rake and I’d drag it through the sand and wait for the water to wash over, and then pull it back and see what was in there. My stepfather would take the bay scallops right out of the basket and eat them raw.
He’d stand in his shorts with his legs spread, his shirt sleeves rolled up, the water washing over his bare feet, and then he’d bend down and punch his fists into the sea and open his fingers and move the sand and water back and forth, like a counter wave, and pull from that shallow earth clusters of clams we’d later work open with a shucking knife. He was lean and strong and his muscles well defined. The tendons in his legs looked like rods pieced together and I often see him that way, in pieces, as though he can never be whole, looking at me from the past, here his dark eyes, and here his wet, shaggy hair, and here his raw hands and the cracked skin on his knuckles from work.
Afterward we went for subs at the deli and ate them in his truck as we listened to talk radio, not really listening, but just including this other voice as we ate. I’d be waiting all that day for something to change, to be different than those other days before—awkward in their own right, because we were to bond in the absence of my father, who I loved and missed, but also despised. Everything was the same, though, except they messed up his order at the deli and gave him Swiss instead of provolone and he picked the Swiss off from the mustard-smeared roll and tossed it out the window and said, “A world without Swiss cheese would be just fine with me.”
I should’ve said something then; he didn’t deserve feeling the way he did—the way I now know he must have felt—alone, uncertain, without love or understanding. On the other hand, fuck him. He was cheating on my mother.
Home never felt the same again. My stepfather stayed through the summer and the holidays, and at some point in late February, told my mother that he didn’t think they should be married any longer. I was surprised that my mother wasn’t more upset. Maybe, though, she’d been hardened by my father having left years before. Or maybe she knew that my stepfather was not interested in sleeping only with her, or her kind. Either way, she didn’t argue.
I remember she sat in the living room with the television on, watching some comedy special and laughing so hard she had to wipe tears from her eyes. My stepfather’s bags were by the door. He was in the shower. I went into my mother’s room and sat on the edge of the bed where I’d seen the other man that previous summer. I leaned back and wondered what it felt like. When my stepfather came into the room, a towel wrapped around his waist, water pebbled along his chest hair, I stood up. My legs were shaking. I felt mean.
“You’re leaving?” I said.
“I am,” he said, pitiably. “I think I need to.”
“You think or you know?”
“I know. I’ll be honest. I can’t hide behind doubts anymore.”
“You mean you can’t hide that you’re a faggot?” I said, and I feel sick now when I hear myself say it.
“You have every right to be upset.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. I slapped it away. Then I started to cry. I cried while my mother was in the other room laughing. I cried and I let my stepfather hold me, and I could smell the spring-scented soap on his skin and hear his heart beat.
After my stepfather left, my mother and I din’t talk much. We weren’t avoiding each other, necessarily, but we weren’t making an effort to be around one another, either. I’d stay late after school, walking around the baseball diamond, pitching rocks against the dugout wall, and chewing tobacco with friends. My mother took a second job as an usher at the coliseum in Hyannis. She slept in late, but always left a packed lunch for me in the refrigerator to take to school.
There were other men, of course. She was a natural beauty. That’s what I heard men tell her. I’ve never said that about any of the women I’ve been with, but I think it’s a nice compliment to give a single, working mother in her mid-forties. Sometimes I would hear these men talking in low voices or coughing into closed fists. Sometimes I would hear my mother laugh. Once there was a very large man standing in the kitchen with his shirt off drinking a glass of water. His eyes were red and bleary. He burped, and then said, “How’s it going, Pal?” I grabbed my lunch and hurried out the door.
Then one night, a few of the players in a band came over and I could hear them in the living room hollering and messing around with the radio dial. The smoke from their cigarettes tunneled down the hallway and made its way through the cracks in my door. Was I the only one in this house who had any sense of decency? Without realizing what it meant to be an adult, I had transformed into one. How long, though, before I became a child again, before the strain and stress of having children and pleasing a wife and keeping a job broke me back down?
The players started playing and the floorboards began to give way. I could smell rum and weed, and in the kitchen, the fat drummer was baking cookies, spooning out the rest of the raw dough from the tube and eating it like an ice-cream cone while watching the uneven balls spread and rise through the lighted window in the oven. Mom was dancing in her bare feet on the rug and some of the men were watching her with watery eyes as though stunned by her freedom or their lack of it. The fat drummer forgot to use a pot holder to take the pan out of the oven and cried out like an infant and dropped the pan on the floor. The music kept going, but everyone was looking at him, at his fat, swollen hand, and my mother held up his elbow and nudged his towards the sink, turned on the faucet, and the drummer looked away and squinted his eyes and cried out again when the water hit the burn.
“Shit, man, we got Hartford tomorrow night,” one of the players standing in the hallway said. “He can’t play the drums now.”
“What about Jonesy?” another said. “You think he can drive up?”
“He’s in jail you fucking moron.”
“I can play better than Jonesy with one hand,” the fat drummer said.
“He’s in jail. What’s the matter with your brain?”
“Let’s test out that one hand theory,” a third man said, and then said to my mother. “You got some big pots? Like the kind you use to boil lobster in?”
I don’t know when I fell asleep, but it was during that marathon one-handed drumming session, and when I woke up, all the players were asleep in the living room. The fat drummer was sitting up against the couch, his wrapped hand resting on top of his round head. The others were slouched or curled or spread out on the floor. I checked my mother’s room. She was gone. She was a dedicated employee; no matter what, she didn’t miss a day of work.
I grabbed my backpack and weaved through the bodies on my way out the door. The beach was ten minutes away by bike. I crossed the two baseball diamonds and down a trail cleared by boys before me. There was a short bridge to cross that we sometimes dove off of at night, and a few hilly roads that I had to walk my bike up until hitting a straightaway that ended at the shore.
There I dug my hands into the sand and raked back the rock and shell and debris until I had a bed of clams and scallops, enough for an entire family.