The kid wants to buy a car. Says he’s saved the money and found the deal. Six hundred dollars for an 11-year-old Datsun, a ’71. All he needs is a ride to Sebastopol, 20 minutes away. Mom’s not happy. We’re in the kitchen, the three of us. They’re standing, near the door. I’m reading my newspaper, at the table. It’s almost dinner.
“I’m not taking you,” Deborah says.
“Why not?” Sean says.
“Because you’re not buying it.”
“It’s my money.”
“It’s not your decision.”
“It’s my money.”
“It’s more than the money, Sean,” she says. “It’s the responsibility. You’re not ready.”
“How? I’m seventeen. I have my license. And I have a job.” His arms go up, surrender mode. “I’m about to be a senior.”
“So? Not every senior needs a car.”
“I need one.”
“You can borrow mine.”
“I don’t want to borrow yours. I want my own.”
She folds her arms, stands in between Sean and the door. I put the newspaper down.
“What about insurance? Have you thought about that? Do you know how much it costs?”
Sean says nothing. Deborah unfolds her arms.
“You have no idea. You are not getting a car.”
Sean breathes out, shakes his head. “I just need a ride.”
“I’m not taking you, and don’t raise your voice with me.”
“Fine. I’ll get somebody else to drive me.” Sean steps toward the door. Deborah steps toward Sean. I get up.
“You are not going to buy that car. No matter who gives you a ride. And that is final.”
“I don’t care what you say,” Sean says, and moves up next to his mom. He stands a head taller.
Deborah turns and looks at me, please in her eyes.
I step in. You don’t treat your mother like that, and even though I’m not his father I’m the man in this house. His mother and I separated for a year and I’m back now and we have an arrangement. That is, I pay my half of the mortgage, bills and food, and we sleep in the same bed. The boy is hers. I don’t set rules for him or discipline or do anything but smile nice. He’s not bad. He’s a good kid. Once football season started we had something to talk about. The 49ers had a Cinderella season. Everybody excited about Joe Montana. We watched every Sunday game, feeling better each time the Niners won. Division, playoffs, then Super Bowl. By the end of the season, it felt normal between us.
Like I said, he’s a good kid. Gets good grades. He brings home As and I tell him he can be whatever he wants. Lately there’s Bs too, and I remind him what I said, that he has options, and not to screw that up.
But now this yelling, pushing at his mom. I’d never seen this.
We split up two years earlier, me and his mom, because she thought some things about me that weren’t true. I swear they’re not. She has a daughter, Jessica, and I raised her like Sean, just like my own. Treated her better than my own. Deborah’s kids have been around me since they were five and seven. Jessica’s older. Used to sit on my lap when she was little, her blond hair in my face smelling like birthday cake and candles. Her little body snuggling close until she was almost a full-on teenager, with hips and you know the rest.
Deborah and I met at my sister’s. She was babysitting Jessica and Sean. When Deborah walked in, it was love at first sight. A beam of light. I looked down at her, she up at me. Later, she told me she’d never been with a man my size. I laughed, my whole family’s my size. I told her I’d never been with a college graduate. My family, we all go to college, she said. A few months later I moved in. Deborah didn’t like being alone with two small kids. She liked that I was always home, not like her ex. A man in the house made her feel safe, she told me – made them all feel safe.
I have a son, Randy, from my first marriage. A year older than Sean. He lives with his mom, but in high school, Randy had troubles. His mom said he was doing drugs in the house and not listening. Randy said she was getting drunk in the house and not listening. I believed Randy just as much. So he moved in with us his sophomore year. Sean had just started high school, and Jessica was a junior.
That’s the year things got crazy. Three high schoolers, all in the same house. I start working more. Go back to the union, take jobs in new developments: hang Sheetrock, dig postholes, lay shingles. I didn’t do much else growing up. This, ranching and one tour in the Navy. My brother still runs a dairy ranch in Petaluma, a half hour away. I love the smell of manure, but I wouldn’t work for my brother. I know him too well.
So the house is full, Deborah’s teaching part-time and the kids are busy. Jessica’s a cheerleader and the boys play Babe Ruth baseball. Randy’s a starting pitcher and Sean’s still learning how to hit. He strikes out a lot. This doesn’t make dinner table talk easy. Kids need to know they’re good at something, and they need to hear it from you. I remind Sean that his strength is his brain but he looks down at his plate and stops talking.
Deborah said she married me because she saw how good I was with kids. She thought I’d be an amazing father. Her words. Truth is, I love the little ones. They’re fun to talk to, and they’re so honest. Deborah also says I’m not as good with teenagers. I don’t know, but once Jessica became a cheerleader, I lost my patience. She had to go to this practice, that car wash, a football game every Friday night. Staying out later. Then the dates. Football players coming to the door, the phone always ringing. My little blond Jessica, her hair long and now dark, growing up too fast.
I spoke to Deborah and said we needed to set boundaries. She agreed, and we called a family meeting. I said curfew was 8 on weeknights and 11 on weekends. Jessica made a face and Randy looked away. Sean didn’t mind. He was always home, like me.
A week after, Jessica comes home Friday at midnight. I ask her why she’s late. Because the group stopped to celebrate at a pizza place, she says, and her ride didn’t leave until just before midnight. I tell her that’s no excuse and she’s grounded. She can go to the games, I tell her, but then straight home. No more pizza parties. And if she makes another face like that, I say, no more dates either. You’ll be spending your free time at home, I say.
Things are quiet for a few weeks. Jessica obeys but you can tell she’s not happy. Then one Friday she comes home at 2 a.m. Next morning, I’m at her door, asking who she thinks she is. She doesn’t answer. I tell her she’s more than grounded now. She’s going to quit cheerleading until she can learn to follow house rules. She tells me to stop yelling at her. You can’t make me quit cheerleading, she says. Now she’s the one yelling. Oh yeah? I say. Yeah, she says, because then I’ll tell. About everything you did. And you know what I mean.
I won’t repeat what she said, but she’s lying. I stand there at the door a while longer, listening to her yell horrible things. Things she says I did. Places I touched her. This house is like the ones I help build – two-by-fours, Sheetrock and plywood. Nothing solid, nothing that stops noise. Contractors get away with it because they sell cheap. But you can hear somebody fart in bed two rooms away.
Sean’s in the next room.
Deborah touches my shoulder, goes into Jessica’s room and shuts the door. It gets quiet. It stays like this for weeks. Jessica stops talking, stops looking at me. Deborah changes seats at the table, so Jessica and I don’t face each other. Randy and Sean say nothing. Nobody smiles and nobody knows what to talk about. I bring up baseball, or ask them how they’re doing in school. Each gives a short answer and goes back to eating. Except Jessica. She just looks at her plate.
Even so, I’m surprised when she doesn’t come home from school one day, a few weeks later. Doesn’t come home that day or the next or the next. Sean says he sees her in school, but she won’t tell him where she is. Finally she calls. Says she’ll be living in a friend’s house for the rest of the school year. Wants to come get her things. She does this when I’m at work. Deborah lets her.
Once Jessica’s gone, I notice the boys more. Randy is always out, and he comes home smelling like grass. Deborah tells me she saw a pipe and a bag of this stuff in his dresser when she was putting in clean clothes. One morning, I go in his dresser and pull the pipe and bag out. That night, I put ‘em right in his face. Tell him I don’t know what kind of house he thinks he’s living in, but he’s not with his mom anymore. In my house, I say, this is unacceptable. How’d you like it, I tell him, if I took you down to the police station with this stuff? Randy says nothing. When I’m done, though, he tells me he wants to go back and live with his mom, just like that.
What could I do?
Halfway into the school year, it’s just the three of us. Then Deborah asks me to go. She wants to give Jessica a safe space to come back to, she says, and time. Give it a year maybe, Deborah says. I’ll always love you, she tells me.
I get it, I tell her. Your kids are everything. I’ve always understood this. I’ll do this for you.
So I go. Find my own little apartment in Cotati. Not far. Ground floor, dark, one bedroom. Tiny kitchen. I stock the fridge with frozen dinners and watch a lot of TV. Sports, documentaries. I think about Deborah and Sean in that house by themselves.
A year passes and Deborah and I talk. She says Jessica won’t come back. She’s living in the East Bay with her uncle and aunt and finishing high school there. She tells me she doesn’t know who to believe anymore. I ask if she’ll take me back. Before she answers, I tell her either I come back now or we sell the house and I’m gone. She takes me back.
The first time I see Sean, he’s grown. He’s got brown fuzz on his upper lip and an attitude. He won’t say much and he doesn’t smile. I ask if he’s happy I’m back. He says nothing. I wait a minute and watch his face. I tell him he’d better get used to it.
It’s like this the first few months. Not much from Sean, and Deborah telling me her new rules: your food is your food; don’t expect me to cook; I teach full-time now; Sean is mine. I’ll set his boundaries and you stay out of his business.
Like I said, it was the Niners that brought us back. Sitting there in the living room, watching football on Sundays. The old Niners always lost. But that year, with Joe Montana, everything was different. They started winning. Not just that, we expected them to win. We were smiles on Sundays, feeling good about everything. Sometimes after, we’d go for ice cream.
I have to say, Sean’s an easy kid. He goes to school, does his homework and hangs out with nice kids. They play baseball and football and board games. Never get into trouble. Never come home late.
Things are like this for the rest of Sean’s junior year. Summer comes and he earns enough money to buy a car. All of a sudden he’s seventeen and has a plan, he says, to buy a used car, cover insurance and be responsible. Since it’s his money, he says, what’s the problem?
Deborah loses it.
I stand by and watch, and even though I’m the man in the house, this isn’t my fight. Sean knows this, because he gets extra mouthy with his mom, more than I’ve seen.
“I don’t care what you say,” Sean says. “I’m getting that car, and you can’t stop me.”
He pushes past his mom. Deborah looks at me, eyes tired.
“Will you do something?” she asks. “Talk some sense into him?”
“Hey Sean,” I say.
“I don’t have to listen to you,” he says.
“Yeah, you do. As long as you live in this house with me and your mother you do.”
“No I don’t.”
I step toward him. He stops, turns to face me. He’s taller than his mom now, but still at my shoulder.
“I’m not going to argue with you,” I say. “Your mother said you’re not buying a car.”
“I don’t care what you say,” he says.
I reach back and smack, open-hand, the side of his head. He jerks sideways and his eyes water. But the way he looks at me. I’d never seen this look from Sean.
“Fuck you!” he says, and says it again.
Now I lose it. I grab him by his neck, dig in my nails and drag him into the living room. I tell him to shut up, but he doesn’t, so I push him down. I pin him with my knee. I have fifty, sixty pounds on him. Say I’ll let him up if he shuts his mouth.
“I’m not shutting up! You’re going to have to,” he coughs, “Kick my ass!” He struggles to get up. I hold him down.
He’s crying and yelling and these walls are thin. Even the outer ones – I would know.
“Hey, hey,” says Deborah. “Is this necessary?”
Sean hollers and swears.
“Hey,” Deborah says, “Hey! I said, is this necessary?”
“You stay out of this,” I tell her. “He needs to learn.”
“Learn what!” Sean says, sputtering.
“No,” Deborah says, “No. That’s enough. That’s enough!”
I pull my knee from Sean. He stays down.
“Fuck you,” he says, but he sounds tired, done.
I tell Deborah to back off.
“I’m not backing off,” she says, and moves her five feet up close. “You need to back off. He’s my son,” she says, and pushes me with more force than I expect. I push back and she falls onto the carpet, next to Sean. Sean gets up, runs the ten feet into his room and slams the door. He keeps a baseball bat under the bed. Deborah and I look at each other. She stands up and motions for me to wait. She opens his door, goes inside and closes it.
I look around the living room. It’s still, but I’m shaking. I light up a cigarette and walk outside, look at blue sky over brown hills. Below that, houses in a circle drive. They all look the same. One story, driveway, two-car garage. Grassy yard and a young tree. When Deborah and I bought the house, Sean complained about the view. The hills are ugly, he said, all dry and bare. He asked where the trees were. I told him the hills didn’t need trees – they were perfect that way. Reminded me of where I grew up.
Two houses over, a neighbor kid rides his bike in the street. He waves. I put the cigarette in my mouth and wave back.
“Hey Rob! Wanna see a trick?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, and walk over.
Later, Deborah and I talk. I ask why she’s against Sean getting a car.
“Because he didn’t ask.”
“So what? He’s responsible. He is,” I tell her. I touch her arm. “What’s the real reason?”
“He’s … reckless. He’s too young,” she says, shaking her head. “Jessica left too early. I can’t have Sean do the same. I can’t.”
I look down, then back up at Deborah. Her eyes go glassy. “It’ll be all right, I promise.”
The next day, I drive Sean to Sebastopol to buy his car. It’s a stick shift and he’s never driven one, so I help him rehearse. While we drive, I tell him to watch me: clutch in, shift, clutch out – easy – then gas. Shift up, shift down. He imitates as I drive. Thinks he has it.
Outside the seller’s house, I notice the scratches on Sean’s neck. No bruising. He looks happy, though. He’s buying his first car. I look over and whisper, “You really stood up for yourself yesterday. I’m sorry for what I did, but your challenge was really something. You know?”
He’s shy about it. “Yeah,” he says, and lets me put my arm around his neck and pull him in tight.
The seller opens the door and walks out. Look on his face tells me he’s not sure everything is all right.
“Everything okay?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say, nodding at Sean. “Everything’s fine. My son here is going to buy his first car.”
He does. Drives it home. Stalls only once. We sit together in the living room and eat ice cream, the three of us, amazed at how quickly Sean learns to drive a stick.
“His first time, no problem.”
“Wow,” says Deborah, looking proud.