Russell Lee spat a wad of snuff into a Planters peanut can. We sat at a picnic table in his back yard by the railroad tracks. He hit the floor with his right leg.
“Your mother is having an affair,” said Russ, my mother’s husband.
“What are you talking about?” I stared at his face – gray mutton chops against the skin tanned from working in the Texas sun. Hummingbirds buzzed past us and sucked sugar water from the cherry-red feeder. I wanted to destroy them.
Russ fought back tears. “And she has AIDS. I have proof.”
His accusation sounded false, but adults kept secrets. Then 21 I had mine.
I met Russell Lee before my mother. When I was 5 years old, my uncle took me to one of his sick relatives. A muscular man with a motorcycle helmet and purple pants entered. His thinning black hair was long and curly.
I wondered if he was a hippie. I had seen her on TV, but never in real life.
When I was 6 years old, my father, a school principal in a suit and tie, fell into psychosis for abusing alcohol and speed. My mother, Nelda, a petite blonde schoolteacher, escaped with me when the death threats turned to body blows and a .38 waved.
Mom filed for divorce. The court forbade my father from future contact. We never saw him again.
Three months later, my mother’s sister set up a blind date with one of her in-laws. It turned out to be Russell Lee, the man in the purple pants.
Mama loved that Russ had overcome life barriers. A quarter Cherokee, he was the last of 12 children in an evangelical family of tenants in the Ozarks. His mother died when he was 7 years old. Russ dropped out of middle school at the age of 14. He married four years later, had two children, and was divorced for a decade at 45.
Within six weeks, he and my mother were married. We switched from a middle-class life in conservative San Antonio to a duplex with psychedelic posters in liberal Austin.
My mother told me that Russ was my father now, so I should call him father.
I was a first grader and did as I said but felt like a liar. Russell and I had only met four times.
He was an avid nature lover. I loved books and music. Skinny, blonde and asthmatic, I embodied the opposite of my stepfather, an albino salamander next to a grizzly bear.
Mom wanted me to be more like normal boys. She and her husband decided to reshape me.
Boy Scout was the first. I kept offering to bake the troop cupcakes.
They redoubled their efforts.
Every boy should know how to hunt and fish, said Russ. I wanted to play Scrabble, but it got me fishing. I threw the pole into the water. He made me shoot a rifle at a coffee pot. I missed. “The only ones who are safe are the deer,” he said, shaking his head.
Over time, my relationship with my stepfather became more controversial. Russ got angry when I was elected President of the Student Council in my junior year. He said the position interfered with my job as a janitor at JC Penney.
He wanted me to quit, but I argued the position could help me with college scholarships. Nelda and Russ had no money. I negotiated a compromise. “I won’t be running again next year.”
But my plan was to run for a senior class officer.
The next fall we went to dinner with a relative. Our hostess hugged me. “The ladies in the church say you were elected class president. Congratulations!”
My stepfather hit his thigh with his fist. “You promised me!” He didn’t look at me while I was eating.
“You lied! Now you have to stop,” he yelled later in the car.
I was shocked when I said “no”.
He wanted me to move out, but my mother asked me to stay. I avoided him and went to her house just to sleep.
Every semester of high school, Russ insisted that I take a car repair class. I always stopped and promised “later”.
Every man should know how to work on his car, he said.
Before my final semester, Russell resumed the mechanics course.
The only way to add it to my schedule was to drop calculus, physics, and AP English so I declined.
“Do not respect -“
“I am not intended for manual labor like you are!” I shouted. “I have a brain!”
I stuffed my backpack.
“School ends soon. Let him stay until then, ”mom pleaded.
Russ gave in but skipped my degree.
I moved out. When Russell and I saw each other at family events, we would shake hands for the show but keep our distance.
Russ was diagnosed with lung cancer in my junior year in college. After recovering from the surgery, Nelda moved to a motel. My stepfather stayed in the house by the railroad tracks.
When my mother asked me to visit him, I agreed – as a favor for her.
During that visit, he announced that my mother had AIDS and that she had cheated on him with the train engineers.
“When the horn blows, it’s a signal.” He believed my mother would meet the railroad staff in an abandoned cabin nearby about Trysts.
“The tracks bend over there,” I said, pointing to something. “The horns are warnings.”
He didn’t believe me. “There is evidence that she has AIDS in the hut,” he said.
I crossed the tracks and went inside. “Nelda has AIDS” was sprayed on a wall. But I recognized Russ’ handwriting. His capital “I” looked like a tadpole swallowing its tail.
When I called my mother, she was crying. “He kept accusing me of grotesque sexual infidelity. I could not bear it. “
Because of our history of emotional distance, I was not hurt by Russ’ break with reality. When I was a teenager, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. But mama hid the depths of his insanity from me.
After his lung operation, he stopped taking his medication. Insanity made his greatest fear come true: Nelda did not love him.
Seeing the extent of his disturbance made me friendlier. On the weekend I went to visit my stepfather. We convinced him to visit his psychiatrist who was recalibrating his medication. Nelda and Russ made up.
Even though I understood him, it took me almost a decade to allow myself to tell him – and my mother – my secret. When I was 30, I told them I was gay.
“It never made a difference to me,” said Russ.
My jaw dropped to the floor.
“He’s been known since you were 16,” said Nelda. “A boy called. Russ got you. You passed out. “I remembered the call but didn’t realize they did too. A guy from Nebraska I had a crush on had made long-distance calls. We’d met on the student council and I wanted badly he liked me.
She paused. “It was hard for me, but he says you were born this way.”
So Russell Lee had been my secret ally all along.
When I was 45 he broke his hip, had a heart attack and went into a coma. That night the nurses told Nelda she had to go. She hugged Russ. Even though he was passed out, his arm pulled her closer.
I flew back to Texas from New York. “There is little chance of recovery,” said one doctor. We signed the papers to disconnect the breathing apparatus from the power supply.
I went outside on the morning of his funeral. A hummingbird hovered near my face.
“If I could choose anyone in the world to be my father, I would choose you,” I whispered. The tiny creature hovered a moment longer. Then it shot away.
Court Stroud lives in New York City, where he is working on a book.