Family and friends gathered at Stormin’ Norm’s Bar on a subzero night in January 1985 to celebrate my mother’s wedding. The ceremony was private; no one but the legal witnesses and my grandmother KeeKee had been invited. The rest of the family clustered at the rail or lounged in the worn, wooden booths, taking full advantage of the open bar.
It was a few weeks before my eighteenth birthday, but because of the occasion no one stopped me from drinking or smoking Marlboro Reds brazenly taken from packs left on tables by people shooting pool. When the new couple arrived, guests and the happy hour leftovers raised their bottles of cold beer into the smoky air to toast the marriage. I raised my bottle directly to my lips. The next day, my mother and stepfather would leave for a week-long honeymoon in Hawaii, leaving me to nurse a hangover and process this new life.
My mother had remarried after eighteen years as a single parent. Her first marriage had lasted only seven years but produced five sons. At the time of Mom’s second wedding, I was a senior in high school and the last at home.
We’d moved several times when I was a kid; we were now in our fourth house, but this one we actually owned. It was built as part of a low-income housing program, which required “sweat equity” from the owners to help make the house affordable. We stained the pine trim and doors a golden oak and hung them ourselves, and we painted the walls, inside and out.
I thought owning a house and not having to move at the end of a lease would provide the stability I hoped for, but it didn’t. It didn’t change that my mother worked nights and was rarely home, leaving my brothers and me to fend for ourselves. We were unable to manage a household or cook a meal that didn’t come from a box. With no supervision, we fought nonstop. No one told us when to go to bed, to do our homework, or that house parties on school nights were bad for your grade point average. We came and went as we pleased. I’d had no order or structure in my life, but after my brothers moved out, the chaos stopped. I was settling into a more stable life. It was as close to normal as I could imagine, until my new stepfather arrived.
His name was Jim, but everyone, including my mother, called him by his last name, Wilson. He wore a sandy beard, and his ankles and wrists were thick like fifths of gin. He and my mother had known each other for years. She’d met him while tending bar at a restaurant, lounge, and bowling alley called The Prairie. He was the live-in boyfriend of her coworker, Flo. In short order, he became a close friend of my mother’s and our family’s fix-it man. A broken-down car shedding parts in the driveway? Wilson would help. Leaky pipe? He’d come over, fix it, and go home. The arrangement was perfect for me. He had great tools, could tell a dirty joke, and was willing to fix the things my brothers and I couldn’t, like the hole in the drywall, the clogged dryer vent, and Mom’s need for companionship.
I also worked at The Prairie as a dishwasher and cook. One afternoon as I was heading to work, my mother stopped me and sat me down on the steps of our split-foyer home.
“Flo might be treating you differently at work now, and you need to know why.”
“Let’s see. Wilson and I . . . have, you know . . . God. You know how he comes over a lot?”
“Well, he’s been coming over a lot and we really started liking each other, well, we’ve always liked each other, but now we love . . . oh, God.” She let out a long exhale. “I’ve been seeing Wilson for a long time and nobody knew.”
“What do you mean ‘seeing’ Wilson?
“Don’t make this difficult, Steven. You know . . . dating. We’ve been dating. It was a secret and now Flo knows. She got suspicious and followed us to a motel and caught us together. It’ll be hard for a while, but it will be for the best. I promise.”
My mother worked hard, played by the rules, and didn’t lie or cheat to get what she wanted. This tipped that image a bit. I was angry but didn’t really know why. My mother hadn’t violated a commitment, but she’d enabled someone else to violate his. Was that as bad? And what did this say about Wilson? Would he ultimately leave her, too, when another woman had a plugged drain? I couldn’t say anything. I just nodded along and went to the restaurant like any other day. Flo treated me the same as she always had, was maybe even nicer. She never once mentioned this new couple in our lives.
Within a few days of my hearing about this secret affair, Wilson moved in to join my mother, grandmother, and me. The two were married within weeks. I didn’t see this as meeting my mother’s promise of it being “for the best.”
Wilson was a fastidious man who now had to live in a very un-fastidious home, a fact I took open pleasure in. I wanted everyone else to be suffering along with me. We were not tidy people, and he immediately tried to change this. He thought we really wanted a clean house and just needed his guidance. He felt everything had a place, and I agreed, though we differed in the detail. Usually I thought that place was the floor. But for Wilson, it wasn’t enough for the dishes to be off the living room carpet and on the counter next to the sink. They had to be rinsed thoroughly and stacked in perfect CorningWare pyramids before being carefully un-stacked and placed in the dishwasher.
My grandmother, who had no interest in learning how to use the dishwasher, nor the strength to roll the portable Kenmore to the sink, would hand-wash the dishes. And Wilson would sit at the kitchen table and nervously tap his new Black Hills Gold wedding ring on his highball glass until she was done. She was in the advanced stages of lung cancer and would be gone in a little over a year. In her deteriorated condition, she developed a tic. As she sat in her favorite chair in the living room, her right hand would rub the curve of the armrest and then slide over to tap her fingernails on the end table. A swoosh of the fabric and the rat-ta-tat of her fingernails. Swoosh-rat-ta-tat, swoosh-rat-ta-tat was the backbeat of our household. After she finished the dishes and left the kitchen, he’d listen for that first swoosh from the living room and then jump up and rewash the lot. Messiness in the house was maddening to him, and my clinging to sloppiness was even more so.
“Mr. Howe?” Wilson called out one day after I came home from work.
“Yes, Mr. Wilson.”
“Where do our coats belong when we’re not wearing them?” We were now face to face at the top of the stairs.
“I don’t know about your coat, but mine goes right here.” I reached out and patted my jacket, which was hanging over the end of the wooden handrail that ran the length of the staircase.
“Have you considered a closet?” he asked.
“Nope.” I’d hung my coat on the handrail at the top of the stairs every day for as long as I could remember. All five of us had. As my brothers moved away, the mound became smaller until it was just my coat. It was the height of luxury and privilege to have my own handrail, and I wasn’t going to give it up. Once Wilson moved in, I would notice my coat was missing in the morning when I left for school. I would search the house and liberate it from our tiny hall closet; my coats were free-range, and I meant to keep them that way. I took an evil pleasure in watching him try and fail to control his anger over a teenage boy’s jacket.
“The goddamn closet is right here!” he said. His voice rose while he took three steps from the staircase to slap his palm on the cheap, hollow-core door.
“So? I don’t use closets.”
“You don’t use . . . Jesus Christ. Judy!” he yelled to my mother sitting at the kitchen table. “Did you know this son of yours doesn’t use closets?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“Don’t any of you want to live in a clean house?” He opened his arms and presented our trash and disorder to my mother and me as if we had just won the grand prize on a game show.
“We’re not that concerned with it,” she said.
“But it’s a wreck!” We responded with blank stares. He growled and paced back and forth before stomping off to his new bedroom.
“Steven, you could try a little.”
“Why? It’s my house.”
The next day, Wilson took a screwdriver and removed the rail completely, fire code and my unsteady grandmother be damned. With no rail, I draped my coat over the four-foot dividing wall that separated the living room from the staircase. Then I came home to find hints of drywall dust and a six-inch-wide path of exposed subfloor where the dividing wall had been. From then on, each day I pantomimed hanging my coat on an imaginary handrail and let it drop to the floor. Each day Wilson hung it up in the closet. This routine continued until the end of jacket season.
Restraint was not Wilson’s strongest feature. I woke up one Monday morning and staggered into the bathroom to get ready for school. I hit the light switch and heard the hum of the ceiling vent fan. Slowly the hum grew louder and the pitch grew higher, and I felt a cool rush on my ankles as all the air from the hallway was pulled in from under the door. The light fixture was shaking, and I feared either the roof would collapse or I’d be sucked into the growing black hole that was my bathroom ceiling. Over the weekend, Wilson, tired of the weak vent fan that had come with the house, had fashioned a new one by installing an industrial centrifugal fan in the attic, a fan more suited to a jet engine than a three-bedroom split foyer.
Nothing was done in a modest manner, and no project was ever finished. I would come home to find entire walls missing, and the trim and doors we had so proudly hung ourselves when the house was built were tossed aside like chewed-up toothpicks. The walls that remained were stripped of their sheetrock and covered with tongue and groove pine siding. The nails were left unseated and sticking dangerously out, leaving me with scrapes and cuts on my arms from fumbling through the new floor plan in the dark. The carpets were ripped up, pipes moved, vents rerouted, nothing remained untouched, un-fucked-with, in the home I’d known since I was eleven. Within a short time, my security, my peace and quiet, and the privacy I’d longed for and finally realized was gone. I was now living in someone else’s house without ever packing a bag.
On a rare Saturday evening when no one had to work, my mother decided we should watch rented movies as a family. In a show of good faith urged on by my mother, I extended the olive branch and offered to go to the video store. Through a fake smile, I asked Wilson what he would like to see.
“Oh, anything,” he responded.
“No really, what do you want?” I was not going to let him set me up to bring home something he didn’t like. I looked around the room at all the pine siding and remembered how we had been doing just fine until he came in and told us we weren’t. I stared daggers into this man sitting at my kitchen table who thought it was his table, this man who wouldn’t tell me what fucking movie he wanted to see.
“Anything,” he said, not looking up from his dinner.
I pulled on my boots and drove the two blocks to the video store. I spent thirty minutes looking for something everyone would like, and then I noticed a curtained doorway at the back of the store. I looked over my shoulder, parted the curtain, and entered the “Adult Special Features” room. I wasn’t sure what to pick. It would either be the 1980 classic Insatiable, starring the legendary Marilyn Chambers, or the newly released Romancing the Bone. A few weeks before, Chambers had been arrested for performing a lewd act on stage in San Francisco, and it had made national news. When Peter Jennings mentions a porn star by name while you’re watching TV over dinner, it piques a young man’s interest. Insatiable it would be. I decided against Insatiable II because even in porn the sequels are never as good.
I set the videos on the kitchen table in front of Wilson and walked to the living room to hook up the rented VCR. Between Sean Penn’s teen prison movie, Bad Boys, and Bill Cosby’s stand-up special Himself sat Insatiable, salacious meat in an unassuming sandwich. I took a seat on the chair opposite Grandma KeeKee, ready for movie night. The room was silent except for the swoosh-rat-ta-tat of my grandmother.
After a few minutes, Wilson brought the videos out, turned on the VCR, slid a tape into the slot, and sat down without a word. He had made his choice. Porn videos in the ’80s didn’t spend much time on cross-marketing efforts, so the minute I didn’t see the coming attractions, my heart began to race. I sat firmly in my chair as the video continued past the FBI warnings. What kind of man would expose my grandma to a John Holmes lay wasting? This confirmed to me even more deeply that my mother had made a horrible mistake. I wanted to run to the kitchen and pull her into the living room and scream, “This is the man you married. Look at him!”
But I sat still. I peeked out of the corner of my eye at KeeKee, swoosh-rat-ta-tat. I looked back at Wilson. We were each holding our ground. The Insatiable theme song began, sung by none other than the movie’s star. Swoosh-rat-ta-tat. The action on screen began with the subtlety of a mariachi band . . . Swoosh. Dear God, we were watching porn with my grandma. On the upside, it cured her tic.
I shifted in my seat. Crossed and uncrossed my legs. I tried not to look directly at the screen and wondered whether I would ever be able to watch porn again. Without warning, Wilson mumbled something unintelligible and retreated to another room. But as he passed in front of the VCR, he neglected to hit the stop button. The video was still running. On the screen, John Holmes was twisting Marilyn Chambers into a sweaty, grunting pretzel. The reality and pressure of the situation became too much to handle. I announced that I needed a Coke. I peeled off, leaving KeeKee alone with the moans, howls, and bad dialogue.
Thirty years later, I sat with Wilson in a cramped motorhome in a Texas RV park, their home long since sold. The hand wearing the Black Hills Gold ring still wrapped around a highball glass. He never left my mother as I expected. He didn’t break her heart.
Getting drunk, we laughed about porn and closets. When the conversation turned nostalgic, tears hung on his lower lids. He paused often as he explained how he just wanted to bring order to our chaos and rebuild a life he had just lost in his breakup with Flo. He’d told me this several times over the years, each time forgetting the last, or maybe just making sure I understood. He thought he was helping to give us a better life, a better home, and couldn’t understand why I didn’t want it. He didn’t know I had just been given the home I longed for. He hadn’t considered the effects of the constant disruption in my life, and I hadn’t processed it myself deeply enough to communicate it to anyone without adolescent shouting. But ultimately he did give me what I needed: a man resembling a father. It took me until I was a father to recognize it.
Back on that Saturday movie night we were both fumbling with what it meant to be the man of the house, both thinking it was about exerting dominance rather than exhibiting maturity and grace. And while Wilson hid in his room and I hid in mine, my grandmother did what the men had failed to do and ended movie night. She shuffled to the TV and turned it to her favorite program, I-40 Paradise, on the Nashville Network. Swoosh-rat-ta-tat.