I never thanked my stepdad for nudging me off course when I already had one foot on the fast track to ruining my life. I didn’t even know what he was up to before it was too late to undo the damage control he’d installed, despite my indifference toward him.
Joe came into my life in eighth grade. Well, he was in my life a long while before then, but he became an actual part of it when he married Ma. At that point, they had known each other for years, as Joe and Pops had been really good friends since they were old enough to have them. Weird as it may seem to say, Joe was already so woven into our lives before Pops got sick that it seemed natural for him to stay once Pops was gone.
Personally, I didn’t have anything specific against Joe, and might’ve even viewed him as a favored uncle if Pops had lived, but marrying Ma didn’t make him my dad. And I made sure everyone knew it.
“How’s your new daddy?” some of the other boys would anyway tease.
“Don’t got one,” I’d snap back, once harshly enough to be suspended two days for fighting on school grounds.
As I grew older, I learned to out-toughen the snide comments until they stopped completely, but that didn’t mean I had come to terms with the new arrangement in my family.
Among the mess of memories from those years, I still vividly remember that first minute when Joe came to live in our house. No matter all the time he’d already spent there, that instant, for whatever reason, stuck. He stood in the foyer balancing a large moving box with his left hand, wearing one of half a dozen pairs of similar deep blue jeans, a dark brown leather belt, neatly tucked checkered shirt, and toe-scuffed workman boots.
“Hiya, kid,” he greeted me, as was his way.
“Why’re you here?” was my response, as I looked past him and distrustfully eyed his pickup stocked with more moving boxes.
“Joe lives here now,” Ma answered for him, in firm reminder-tone that we had already talked about this. That I knew what happened when two people married.
“I’m not calling you ‘Pops,’” I turned on him defiantly.
“Joe’s my name anyway,” he said easily.
But just because he wasn’t about to pull the “new dad” card didn’t mean he wasn’t committed to raising me, and thinking of me, as a son. Or so I’ve come to realize.
Ma had watched Pops, my real dad, die and Lord knew she needed someone to take care of her after all those years of playing nurse when she was really only a store manager at a local toy store. Maybe Pops had even asked Joe to take over, handed him the reins of his modest kingdom as it were, trusting him with his wife and son as only a really close friend can. And Ma, well, I never knew what Ma was thinking when she agreed to marry Joe, though I’m sure at first it had much to do with just knowing he was a good enough man to lean on.
Over the years, Ma and Joe’s relationship never immediately make me think of romance. Sure, he got her chocolates and roses at the right time, remembered their anniversary, and took her to dinner on occasion, but it usually felt more like two old friends who got along well enough to live together. Never that special light Ma used get in her eyes when she looked at Pops.
By the time I hit high school, I was what most people would call troubled, more than the usual teen. Alongside Ma, I had watched Pops wither back into the dust of the earth over the five years he was sick, almost one third of my life at that point. I barely remembered the healthy years before that.
If I listen to my memories, my childhood ones play to the rhythm of hushed whispers and mechanical humming, with the added beat of clicking heels on hospital tiles percussed with squirts of hand sanitizer. I didn’t know it for what it was then, but there was a hole in my life, an empty space where memories of my Pops teaching me how to change the car oil and keep a barbeque steak rare and yell at blind football umps should have been. That more than anything was the source of my troubled mind, which I couldn’t even blame on Joe. He would’ve shown me anything I’d let him.
I somehow made it through ninth grade without falling off the rails completely, but tenth grade meant that many of my friends were soon driving, which equaled farther distances to steal away to for the type of dumb things teens do away from parental supervision. Much of that was influenced by the guys I hung out with, and it’s no exaggeration to say I may very well be one or two of about a dozen of us who finished high school or wasn’t a dad before graduation.
I was unknowingly set on filling the hole in my life with all sorts of immediate escape remedies that do more harm than good in the long run. Suffice it to say, I was firmly headed down the wrong track to nowhere.
Why Ma never outright rebuked me the first time I came home way past curfew or totally plastered or only long enough to change my clothes before school the next morning is beyond me. I knew she disapproved, saw it in the thin purse of her lips and dimmed expression in her eyes. Heard it in the undertone of comments such as, “Lost your way, Cinderella?” and “Thanks for keeping your bed so neat.” Maybe Joe reassured her I was a regular teen. Maybe she thought I would grow out of it before I did anything too dumb. Maybe she thought I needed space after so much of my childhood had been stolen away.
Joe didn’t either tell me off as he might have. He never yelled at me for being so tough to deal with, for giving Ma way more worry and aggravation than she deserved. He never blocked me from Wi-Fi or tried to read or take away my phone. And I’m sure my surly remarks and disregard for his authority tried his patience beyond what he should have to deal with from any kind of son. Especially because he hadn’t really done anything to deserve it.
Either way, I don’t know where the current track would have taken me up if Joe hadn’t made his move.
Late one night, my friends and I were busted by the sheriff’s deputies for drinking on the railroad tracks. We usually played a funny sort of tag with them, hopping from party spot to party spot, trying to stay one step ahead, while they followed after us because of complaints of noise scaring people’s livestock or littering and the like. Truth is, they didn’t care much about what we were up to, knowing full well that guys like us were simply learning the patterns we expected from life, but they did worry about late night drinking and driving and train tracks. We could usually do whatever we wanted so long as no one ended up dead.
So it was that night that the game of tag caught up to us and our illegal cans of beer, and a handful of us were hauled in and given the choice of “slumber party” in a cell or explaining to our parents why the sheriff was calling them so late at night if we weren’t actually dead.
I couldn’t call Ma, no way would I cross that line. For me, the choice was between Joe and a cell. I chose Joe.
“Hiya, kid,” Joe said same as always when he came to pick me up, checkered shirt tucked into blue jeans as if he hadn’t been pulled from his bed.
The second he signed me out, I bolted for the car. I waited for him in that same old truck he’d used to move in, debating if I should feign sleep or brace myself for the storm sure to come. Joe had never raised his voice to me in the years since he’d married Ma, but that didn’t mean I hadn’t finally pushed him over the line. I knew I was guilty, I hurt because it had come to this, so I braced myself for impact.
The few minutes I waited for Joe in the car felt like hours. I couldn’t figure what was staying him so long inside the station, and grew certain he was making me wait on purpose, drilling in the guilt so I’d feel even more like dirt.
I had worked myself up into quite an anger by the time he slid into the driver’s seat, ready to lash out if I detected even the slightest accusation in his tone.
Joe sat a minute, silent, helping my nerves none. He stuck the key in the ignition but didn’t start the car.
“Well, kid,” he finally said, voice steady as ever, “no point telling you what you already know for yourself.”
That was it. He started his truck and made for home, my anger slowly fading through the open window and darkened miles.
At home, I went immediately to bed, but I didn’t fall asleep for a long while. I don’t know what Joe told Ma about his late-night ride, but I do know that she didn’t say anything to me about it or give any indication that she knew I’d been up to something.
All I could think about were those few simple words Joe had told me before he drove me home. I knew he wasn’t talking about the drinking, especially with a good chance he and Pops had been up to the same sort of trouble when they were my age. It’s just the way things were in our small town.
Rather, I knew he was referring to the path I was traveling, knew he was telling me that the answer for my behaviors was somewhere inside of me, if I could be bothered to look. I couldn’t be. Even though I couldn’t name the emptiness I’d felt yawning deep inside me since Pops’ passing, I knew it was at the root of everything. But that didn’t mean I knew how to stop it.
Within a week, my friends and I were back to our game of tag with the deputies.
The second time I set out, just as I was leaving my house to catch a ride for another night of trouble, two familiar words stopped me.
I had long run out of patience for adults who still considered me a child, but I never corrected Joe when he said it. As long as he didn’t try to call me ‘son.’
“Hey,” I grunted, moving past him without breaking stride.
Joe stood with an elbow propped on the railing of the steps leading down from the porch, colorful checkers neatly tucked in, cold beer at his fingertips, pack of cigarettes held out to me.
“Won’t tell,” he reassured ‘round the butt clenched between his lips.
I took a proffered cigarette but didn’t immediately stick it in my mouth. Joe struck a match against his belt buckle and held it out to me. I let him light the end.
We smoked in silence, Joe doing a poor attempt at smoke rings and me wondering what the blazes this was all about. I figured he might start laying into me then, tell me off for being negligent of Ma and all she had to go through and just how much of a man around the house he’d been when he was only a kid. Because he hadn’t yelled at the sheriff, could be he reckoned a “little” chat was long overdue.
I itched to get away from him, to meet up with my friends at the old diner near the empty field they sometimes staged outdoor movies in during spring and summer. But I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing it.
“How’s school?” Joe finally asked, his words an anticlimactic break in the silence of possibility.
Joe nodded sagely. “Teachers?”
“I got it.”
I didn’t always do my homework, but I didn’t never do it either. I also remembered to cram enough information before a test to pass it, albeit barely. Not because I cared about school. My entire goal was to do well enough to keep meddling teachers from bothering Ma. She didn’t need that headache any more than I cared to have them on my back.
The dim red glows burned closer and closer to the grips between our fingers. I flicked my cigarette away, ending whatever sort of not-father-not-son bonding we’d been having. I jumped on my bike and steered it down our front path without using my hands.
“Later,” I grunted as I stood to pedal like mad for the diner.
By the time I reached the parking lot, I hardly had time to hop into the back of my friend’s truck before he peeled away.
About a week later, I wasn’t even out the door when I was stopped by that same refrain.
Joe was in the kitchen, struggling with a pantry door that was off its hinges.
“Gimme a hand, will ya?”
I didn’t even fight to stifle my very pronounced sigh. “Fiiine.”
I held the door while he patted his pockets for screws.
“Now, Billy from the store said we just have to stick it right back in here, see?” he tried explaining. “And then this little thingy here, we put it here to hold the screws, right? And then we put this doohickey here and this thingermerjig goes on top—”
Joe clearly had no idea what he was talking about, so I took hold of the screwdriver, doohickey, and thingermerjig before he could hurt himself, or worse, wreck any more of Ma’s kitchen. It took some figuring out, and more than a few minutes of hastily watched DIY videos, but we eventually got the pantry door back on.
“That’s fine work right there, kid,” Joe said admiringly, patting me on the back for emphasis.
I hustled out of there and pedaled my bike like the road was fire, but the truck was long gone by the time I made it to the diner.
I checked my phone. SRRY MIST.
I contemplated taking my bike out to the merrymaking, but gave up halfway there. I was tired, and it wasn’t worth the effort. The ride home I alternated between cursing out Joe for holding me up and wondering just what Ma and I were supposed to do if Joe couldn’t be the man around the house. How did a man like that even manage to hold down a job? I figured he had some good friends covering for him.
The next time he stopped me was for a broken porch step.
“Help me with this, will ya?” he said. “Your Ma near broke her leg stepping through here.”
I cared about Ma enough to help Joe fix the step right then. Rather, I’m pretty sure Joe was the one helping me, little help that he actually was.
“That man needs a restraining order from hammers and saws and definitely electric tools,” I ranted to Ma after each ill-advised attempt at home repair.
Ma offered me her tired smile, the one she’d frequently used when Pops was sick, but rarely showed up since. “He means well. Just be patient with him, all right?”
And I tried. I really, really tried. For Ma.
So it went throughout the spring of tenth grade and into the summer leading up to eleventh. Here and there, we fixed up different parts of the long neglected house, Joe asking for my help each time and nine times out of ten me giving it to him and thereby answering my silent question of who would be the man around the house, deciding that if it wasn’t going to be Joe then it had to be me. At least I was soon excelling at woodworking in school, even if the class was only an elective.
Then, without realizing it, and certainly without intending to, I fell into the rhythm of the work, learned how to lull my troubles with it. Each pound of a hammer was a push, each saw of wood a cut to remove the dark thoughts long populating my mind. I even started to like it, turning my fixation from drunken oblivion and other aids of mind-escape to the list of repairs suddenly clamoring for center stage. The leaky faucet in the downstairs bathroom. The door to the shed that never properly closed. The set of birdfeeders we made for Ma’s birthday.
Now, instead of just missing my ride from the diner, I sometimes didn’t even bother trying to catch it at all.
Long weekends became JOE ON BBQ. MAYB BLO THE ROOF.
Sundays turned into MOWNG LAWN. JOE MAY LOSE TOE.
Any given night of the week, FIXIN WITH JOE.
Hanging out with my friends became so intermittent that I started feeling like an outsider among them, smiling at jokes because they were laughing but unable to join in because I didn’t really get them or simply hadn’t been there when they’d occurred. My mind was so preoccupied there were nights I only had a beer or two because I was itching to get home and continue whatever repair project we’d begun, if only so Joe couldn’t mess anything up while I was away.
I wouldn’t say that anything meaningful passed between us while we worked. Most of the time the DJ shuffled old hits on the radio as I tried to figure out just how to go about doing whatever Joe had good-heartedly, misguidedly decided was next.
By twelfth grade, I’d drifted enough from my old crew that our interactions were little more than friendly greetings when passing each other in the hall. IF we passed each other at all. At that point, most of them weren’t always in school.
Finally, I graduated. Nothing spectacular but enough that it wasn’t difficult to get into state college a few towns over.
I went to visit Pops before I left.
Surprising myself, I didn’t rage at him for leaving us behind as I’d usually done, for handing over care of his family to a simpleton as I often did, but to tell him of my progress and the things I had made. Without noticing the change, I suddenly realized I felt capable, ready, still searching but starting to believe I’d be okay. I was even proud of how far I’d come, how I hadn’t allowed his unfair absence from my life wreck me completely. I felt I honored him each time I did chose right.
The summer after I graduated college, I came back home to look for a job to buy time as I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life. Somehow, the house hadn’t fallen apart while I was away, though I was sure that had much to do with my visits home over long weekends and school breaks.
I submitted my resume at a local hardware store, figuring I knew enough about tools and home repairs to not hate the work. I was called in for an interview with Manager Billy the next day. It went well enough, but as I was leaving his office, something caught my eye on his doorframe.
I stopped and peered closer. There was a unique, intricate detailing carved into the wood framing his door. A delicate swirling mass that vines around the lintel, speaking as much of hidden wonders as it did of the love and care of whoever had created it.
“Nice,” I whistled.
Billy ran a proud hand over the surface. “That’s Joe’s work all right.”
I blinked at him. Which Joe? Stepdad-but-not-real-dad Joe?
“No one got hands like his,” Billy grinned. “Ever since high school, just give him a piece of wood and he can make you anything.”
I stared. Was he really talking about Joe? Joe with talented hands and an eye and wrist for such eye-catching detail. How? He was a buffoon, a dunce, likeable but totally inept. Wasn’t he?
I knew he worked for a furniture company, knew he’d teamed up on some projects with Pops, but I’d never thought to ask about what that meant. A boring job for a boring man. What did I care to know more?
I went straight to his workplace from there, and what I found was a revamped air hangar, the front of which was a display room for unique wooden furnishings, tables, chairs, bedframes, desks, bookcases, cribs, anything made of wood and anything that could be carved.
“I’m looking for Joe?”
“Boss is in back.” The cashier jabbed her thumb behind her.
I headed toward the back, navigating through finished pieces to a large worktable surrounded by neat stacks of lumber and well-stocked with all manner of tools. Joe was bent over the table, carefully weaving patterns into a wooden handrail.
That was it. No explanation, no excuse, no justification for why he’d made himself less in my eyes just so I wouldn’t be less myself. He didn’t even look up to say it. For my part, I couldn’t look away from watching him work, watching the skill and care evident in every movement of his hands.
Though he worked with wood, I began to see how those same hands had gently, patiently sanded away my rougher habits, revealing my finest figure and protecting its quality from high stress even as I strained to cut against the grain. I knew for the first time, even though I was too overwhelmed to embrace it fully then, why my father would have entrusted his wife and only son to Joe.
After a few quiet minutes, Joe smacked the table he was working on.
“Your Pops built this,” he told me. “Near twenty-five years ago.”
My mind caught on that detail. Twenty-five years ago, just a few years before I was born. The craftsman was buried, the table had outlived him. Twenty-five years and it was here still.
“Will you show me?” I asked, nodding at the piece he was carving.
At that, Joe looked up. “Come on ‘round.”
All through the summer, Joe taught me, and I took to it well. I liked the idea of creating something new, of building something that would endure. In that workspace, among the sawdust and scattered nails, the whorls and burls and silky smooth finishes, I slowly filled that long gaping hole left behind by my stolen Pops. And when summer was over, I was at that table still.
In time, I married, and when everyone joked to my wife about how they never thought I’d make it and find someone so good, there was too much truth in their jibes. I worked at Joe’s company, and soon saved enough to buy us a nice house just a few blocks over from Ma’s. I was finally on a stable path.
When my oldest son was five and my daughter three, my wife and I invited Ma and Joe over for a barbeque one Sunday afternoon. Ma went inside to help my wife prep and spoil our new baby, while Joe and I took our beers outside. Even though I now knew what Joe could do, I manned the barbeque anyway. It was my house after all.
A few minutes later, the older kids wandered out from inside, surely shooed away by their mother.
“Hiya, kids,” Joe said to them, extending his familiar greeting to the next generation.
The kids ignored him, pressing against me instead to ask when the hotdogs would be ready.
“First say hi to grandpa,” I told them.
My little girl looked up at me, confused. “Grandpa’s in Heaven,” she reminded me.
“Grandpa Dale’s in Heaven,” I tried to explain. “This is Grandpa Joe.”
“Grandpa Dale is Mommy’s daddy—” My son tried to work it out, stumbling when he realized there were more grandpas than kids to figure in.
“No. Grandpa Cliff is Mommy’s daddy,” my daughter impatiently explained to her older brother, “Grandpa Dale is in Heaven, and Grandpa Joe is Pops’ daddy.”
My son looked at me for validation. He wasn’t the only one. Though he hadn’t said a word, I knew Joe was listening, perhaps awaiting my well-worn objection that he was certainly not my Pops.
I opened my mouth to speak, but unexpectedly paused. If Grandpa Joe was my son’s grandfather, then what did that make him to me? What was I to him?
From deep in my past I heard the echo of his “Hiya, kid,” the late-night rumble of a truck engine and an unwelcome request to fix a pantry door. I remembered the gradual filling of an empty space and the steady, overlooked hand that had somehow, despite my foolish wishes, guided a troubled teen’s life.
I looked at Joe. I looked at my kids.
“That is absolutely correct,” I confirmed.
And it was, because, to be honest, never calling Joe ‘Pops’ wouldn’t take away from what he’d done for me. I only understood then that I could fight against it all I wanted, but it wouldn’t change the truth, that unlike many others I had one Ma and two Pops.
One who gave me life, and one who taught me how to live it.
E. L. Tenenbaum is the author of multiple Young Adults novels and co-host of the Oh My Word! podcast. She enjoys speaking to middle/high school students about how writers think and develop stories, and how the lessons of life and writing are a two-way street. Take a book off the shelf at www.ELTenenbaum.com or find her on Twitter/Instagram @ELTenenbaum.