When the Streetlights Came On

Posted on: September 22, 2015

I used to be a bird.

Marvin, my stepdad, nicknamed me Bird. Taller than all the boys in my kindergarten class, I had comically long limbs matched with a metabolism that made me look as nourished as Mick Jagger or Jack Skellington.

“Birdie, it’s like this: You keep your skirt down and tell ‘em to keep their zippers zipped.”

I sat on a stool in McDonald’s when my dad bestowed this single nugget of knowledge. I swiveled my stool and shoved fries into my overstuffed mouth and nodded like I knew exactly what he was talking about.
At six, I didn’t know much of what happened when skirts went up and zippers zipped down. I knew it had something to do with no-no parts and that now my birthday Happy Meal tasted different.

That was the same day he told me I had an old soul. “Old soul,” I parroted, stretching out the “o’s”. I wondered if it was older than his.

“You’re over the hill today.” He said and patted me on the back. “You’re over the mountain.” I told him and stuck out my tongue.
Marvin’s lessons spanned a spectrum from common sense to street smarts. In front of a sunny summer backdrop while the Temptations or George Clinton played, there were lessons in bike riding, rollerblading, self-defense, dancing, and basketball. How to aim for the backboard, how to flick my wrist to give the ball rotation, and how to guard my opposition:

Follow their gut. Not their eyes.
Our neighborhood got darker than most when dusk moved in. That’s when the heavy lessons helped. Sneakers hung by their shoelaces from the telephone cables on our street. Marvin pointed at them and told me they marked bad houses and sometimes they marked death. He taught me to look both ways before crossing. He taught me to go home when the streetlights came on.

Over the years, even after my mom and Marvin split up and after he moved away from Buffalo, he remained my stepdad, a real stepdad, stepping into shoes that were never filled for very long. I’d visit and he’d call. Before I started college he gave me an updated version of the talk he’d started when I was six. “You just never know what anyone has.”
In early November 2006, I skipped my college classes and went to visit him. My stepfather sobbed into my shoulder. “I always thought of you as my daughter, Birdie.” I knew this to be true. I thought of the time he took me to work with him. A co-worker told me I looked like my dad. He put his arm around my shoulder and said nothing. His grip was strong then like every bear hug he’d given me back when I was fledgling. But now, my arm was around his shoulder and his hug was more like a slouch, his body hung off of mine.

He’d aged 40 years since I last saw him. His scent had changed from his mix of cologne and man musk to the withering body odor of a stranger. I avoided looking at him. His eyes were no place to stay. I looked down, as if this had been my fault. I stared at his ballooned feet swollen with water because of the liver failure. He clung hard to my body, and I pathetically tried to console him, “I’m not ready to go.” He sobbed and I rubbed his head, but couldn’t lie to him.
I’d never seen him cry or break in any sort of way. My gut shrank each time his fingers gripped my shirt, but I never wanted him to stop because it meant he was still alive.

On Thanksgiving morning, Marvin’s body lay still where he slept for the last time. There is a lot to say about that day and all that followed.

Marvin buried in his gators. My godmother, Sue, slipped in the backyard. The mashed potatoes burned. My godsister Jen and I drank sweet, cheap, piss-colored wine. Thanksgiving dinner was quiet; not because of the food. Sue’s son carried her to the couch. The pastor called my sister Krystina “Katrina.” Krys and I danced to Carl Carlson. I heard “Hallelujah” for the first time. I got pulled over.
I got pulled over on the way from the grocery store back to the house.

I ignored a stop sign. I’d gotten lost on my way back to the house. I was sure the road led to a dead end. Pleased to find the corner had a turn instead of a turn around, I took it. I didn’t know until the blue and red reflected in my rearview.

When the cop asked me why I was crying, I cried more.
“You won’t lose anything. No points. Nothing.”

I thought about telling him about Marvin since he taught me how to drive and how he was dead now. But the cop was walking back to his car, and the ticket was in my hand, and here there was no braking. Tears and snot ran into my mouth, I crumpled the ticket in my hand and the cop’s lights swirled once more as he left me where I was parked.

I left the keys out of the ignition. I got out and walked nowhere. The streetlights were on.

Written by: Tia Brown
Photograph by: Matthew Wiebe

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