Jake was a slender brown haired kid from down the street. One of seven brothers. It was a Sunday, and he showed up at our house around 1pm, just after we got home from church. Who knows how many times he rode his green scooter down the street to our house and knocked while we were away.
About an hour after he showed up, he mentioned that he hadn’t had breakfast yet, so I gave him a bowl of cereal. I was sitting at the table, checking out Facebook on my laptop. Jake was across from me eating. He kept glancing up at me every so often, and then down at the bowl. Tristan was in his room, changing from his church clothes, excited, I’m sure, to get out and play basketball with Jake. Mel and Norah were changing, too. I could tell that Jake wanted me to say something to him, but I hadn’t said much. He often gives me these looks that remind me so much of when I was a child and searching for a surrogate father. And every time he looked at me, I worry that I’m getting in over my head by letting this kid hang out at our house every day.
“Why didn’t you eat breakfast?” I asked.
Jake shrugged, gave me a sly smile, and said, “I don’t know. I just didn’t.”
I try real hard to not be judgmental of Jake’s parents. I’ve only met them once. But sometimes it’s hard. He’s only 8-years-old. He always comes over in clean clothes and with combed and washed hair. From a distance, he appears well cared for. But it’s the things he says that worries me. Like when it’s almost 2 p.m. and he claims to have not eaten that day, and acts like it’s a regular thing. Perhaps he’s one of those kids that doesn’t like breakfast. Or perhaps he got up at noon because it was a Sunday. Or perhaps his parents were too busy with his 6 other siblings to notice that Jake hadn’t eaten breakfast.
He kept talking. He mentioned that his oldest brother, who was 16-years-old had been punching holes in the walls at their house.
I looked him in the eyes, “Don’t be pulling that crap at my house,” I said.
Jake laughed. Then he looked a little scared. “No,” he said, “I won’t.”
“How are your parents handling that?” I asked. “I bet it pissed off your dad.”
“Stepdad,” he said. “He’s my stepdad.”
And I realized the man that I met a few weeks earlier, the one who was sitting on the sofa eating an omelet in an undershirt. The one who didn’t seem to care enough to get up and shake my hand, was his stepfather.
He went on telling me that his real dad lived in Smallerville, a town about 10 minutes away from us.
“I don’t see him much,” he said.
Then he looked down at his cereal again.
“I’m sorry, buddy,” I said. “What about your stepdad? Do you like him?”
Jake looked offended, his eyes narrowed, and he drew his face back. Then he laughed. He didn’t mention injustices. He didn’t give a list of why he hates his stepdad. He just said, “No. I hate him.”
And in that moment, all I could think about were all the stepparents I had, and how I hated them because they weren’t my real mother or father. How their presence was nothing more than a reminder that my parents weren’t together anymore. That they were never going to be together again.
Jake finished his cereal, and then he and Tristan played ball in the front yard, like they often did. Around 3 p.m., Mel and I dragged Tristan and Norah into the backyard to help pull weeds and move some planter boxes. I told Jake that he could go home, or he could help us work.
He was at the end of our driveway. He didn’t pause for a moment, the basketball in his hands, and look down the street to his house, then look at ours. He didn’t seem to think about it at all.
He just said, “Yeah… I’ll help,” like working in our yard was the obvious choice.
That afternoon, he hauled rocks, moved dirt, and pulled weeds. He never complained. He clearly had a good work ethic, from what I could tell. And once again, from a distance, he appeared to be a clean cut hard working kid from a good family.
Later that night, he ate dinner at our house again, like he does most nights. I sent his mother a text message, like I always do, asking her if it was okay for him to eat at our house. I’d call her, but she usually doesn’t answer. And she sent back the same text she always does, “That’s fine.”
We had enchiladas, and as Jake huffed down four of them (I only ate two), he went on about how his mother usually makes dinner late at night. Then he told us about how his older brother keeps getting picked up by their real dad because of all the holes he’s been punching in the walls. He laughed about all this, and I got the impression that Jake was jealous of the attention his brother was receiving.
“You know, Jake,” I said. “You shouldn’t have to punch holes in the walls to get your dad to come around.”
“Yeah,” Mel said. “Getting your dad to come around because you’re doing bad stuff is not a good idea.”
Jake let out a breath like we shot down his bright idea.
We kept eating, and I thought about all the stunts I pulled as a kid. All the trips to the principal’s office and time spent in detention. The calls home from teachers. And for the first time in my life I felt like I understood that most of my bad behavior was a message to my father that read, “Pay attention to me!” I didn’t realize it as a kid, and I don’t know if Jake realized it until Mel and I pointed out that it was a bad idea.
Around 8 p.m., I told Jake that he had to go home so we could get our kids to bed. Before he left I said, “Don’t go home and punch holes in your walls. It’s not going to bring your dad back.”
He gave me a straight-faced look followed by an awkward giggle. Then he said, “Don’t worry. I wont.”
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, and a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His essays on parenting and marriage have been featured in New York Times Motherlode, Huffington Post Parents, Huffington Post Weddings, and The Good Men Project. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo by Lucinda Higley