Southern Journal: Stepfather's Day

He has none of me in him. But the son I inherited taught me more about fatherhood that I ever thought I would know.
Rick Bragg

I think the boy might turn out all right. Next year he goes to college, far from me and any bad habits I have left to teach.

His name is Jake. When he was 11, I taught him how to cheat at cards. "You didn't teach me," he said. "I just caught you." I taught him how to throw a punch at 12. He drew a peace sign on his shirt.

I taught him how to shoot a jump shot at 13, and throw an elbow. He quit the team, and joined the drama club. One day he was a small forward. The next he was Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice.

At 15, I taught him the words Hank Williams wrote. He took up the guitar, and played John Lennon. I tried, after his second or third girlfriend, to tell him that pretty women come and go, and variety--when you are young--makes an old man rich in memories. He picked love songs on his Epiphone.

Now, it is too late to improve him anymore. But, in a way, that is what I have done. It is as if the boy studied me as he grew, and decided I would be the template for what he would not be. How odd, to be so proud to fail.

I guess a man deserves that, when he plays in the fields of the Lord, living life the way he has damned well pleased, and decides, at 46, that being a father is the one thing he never tried. Maybe that is why there is no such thing as Stepfather's Day. My own heart has always broken on the third Sunday in June. I was, almost all my life, a fatherless boy. On Father's Day I call my mother, to thank her for shouldering the weight alone.

The boy, I figured, might be a remedy. I got him when he was 10. He came in the package with his mom, like an extra biscuit or that ninth piece of chicken. I immediately began teaching him bad habits because I did not have any good ones. I bought him a .22 rifle and a go-kart that would run with traffic on the interstate. Every time his mother, Dianne--whom we shall hence refer to as "The Warden"--was out of town, we ate pancakes at IHOP, or chicken in a box.

"Life is an adventure," I told him. "Have some." He had his own definition of adventure. Like me, he wants to see the world. I tell him about Africa, about camel trains on the far horizon, and voodoo priests in the slums of Haiti. I lived to chase stories. He craves adventure, too, but says he might pursue it through the Peace Corps.

He is not, of course, perfect. He forgets to take the garbage out until our home smells like a South Georgia chicken house. But he has a fine heart, a fine mind. More than anything, he has a peace in him. He picks his guitar some slow evenings on Mobile Bay, and sings to the gulls, and the snowbirds in their high black socks. I do not have the patience to watch a whole sunset. I end up staring down into the murky water, to the fish I should have caught.

I search his face for a sign of me, but I am missing. There is, maybe one thing. I never had the gall, the hypocrisy, to lecture him on being good. The only high ground I ever tried to claim was this: In a world that grows more selfish every day, where people use politics and even religion to build higher walls between the lucky and unlucky, he should refuse, and see the value in the lives of people who work hard for a living but never had the much luck.

I would like to believe he heard what I said, but the truth is it was in him all the time. He routinely gives his allowance to charities at school. He even gave his sneakers, and came home barefoot. Once, when a basketball coach  had forgotten a boy at the far end of the bench, jake walked over to him--like a man--and reminded him the boy had not played. That took more courage than it takes to punch someone in the nose. So he leaves soon, shy of ruination.

Almost. When Jake turned 16, The Warden insisted he get a safe, slow, boxy car, as ugly as possible. When my boy leaves, he will leave in a Mustang.