The signs on our street were the gifts my father gave me. I didn’t know I’d hungered for the colors, the symbols, until I was delivered the task of deciphering it all. Yellow for careful. White for knowledge. Red told when to take pause. Squiggled lines and straight lines. Students with books crossing the street. Letters made words I couldn’t yet read.
“They’re all yours,” he told me as we walked home from my kindergarten. I danced around the stem of a No Parking sign and inside my head sorted yellow, white, and red. I realized if I was to look after them, I would need the signs with me.
“When can I bring them home?” I asked.
“Can’t do that. These people around here need signs or it’s all chaos.” When he talked my father moved his arms all around. “Just leave them. You be the landlord.”
Our landlord drove a big car, unlike those our neighbors owned sitting stubborn in driveways and yards. His was shiny and without rust or dings. He was from some other place and when the bathtub wouldn’t drain or the fridge no longer hummed, he held his hands out, palms up and said, “Not my problem.”
“I don’t want to be a landlord,” I said.
“Well, what do you want to be?” My father stopped, his hands went to his knees and he looked at me. He waited a long time for my answer, and I searched his skinny red face for one, but I didn’t know then how to tell him I wanted to be seen as the girl with the most of what she had.
Through my bedroom window I could see the moon and it was always full. I made it mine. Eventually the sidewalks, the utility poles, houses and buildings were mine, too.
“You can have all you see. Just don’t go around bragging about what all you got,” my father told me. “Don’t nobody like a braggart.”
I didn’t have a mother. She left him because of his drinking. She left me because I don’t know why. I claimed for my own several of the mothers I’d seen at my school, there to pick up daughters and sons. These mothers of mine volunteered to check our heads for bugs. They handed out plastic combs on picture day. They put notes in lunches with smiley faces and hearts, notes their real children left on the lunch tables or threw away.
I couldn’t make those kids at school like me. They made fun of my clothes, my tall, striped socks and plaid skirts. Sometimes the teacher laughed with them. I don’t think she meant to make me feel bad. Maybe she had been the girl like me when she was young? I don’t know what she felt or thought, but I didn’t hate her.
When I told him about the kids at school, my father held me by the shoulders, looked at my face with his eyes hard in their sockets, he said, “Good thing you now own all their houses.” He turned his eyes up the way he did, then added, “The teacher’s car too.” I said, “But I can’t drive.” He said, “That’s okay. Prob’ly not even nice enough for you anyway.”
Brad would never meet my father, but I told him about the signs and the other students, my socks and how I didn’t have a mother. He was disgusted, especially about my father and the signs.
“All your father ever did was tell lies to you but you act like he was so amazing or something,” he said in his fast way. He drove on, satisfied. I was angry. The car was quiet except for the noises it made.
“Oh my God look at that,” he said. We passed a girl edging along the side of a house, looking into windows. “Nice neighbors and she’s peed herself.” The fabric of her shorts, the part we could see, was dark in the center. He turned down the corners of his mouth and shook his head the way he did when he felt superior. I didn’t tell him this neighborhood was a lot nicer than where I was taking him.
In a few minutes we were within blocks of the house where I’d grown up. He ran a stop sign and I flinched.
“You’re supposed to stop there,” I said.
“For what?” he asked of the empty streets.
Brad talked so much. He told me about all of the people at his job and boring stories about what happened during his day. Because of the way words hurried from his mouth, he thought he was clever.
I could have said more, but the times I bothered to share, my heart was ready-set-go racing through my rib cage. My skin from my toes up changed from peach to red and my scalp prickled and itched. My breath was hard to keep up with. It was running a race without leaving my seat. And Brad looked at me like he couldn’t believe he knew me, but not in a good way, so I kept to myself.
I wanted to take Brad to see where I came from. The only place my father still existed. I wanted to know, could Brad see? With the promise of a picnic and fishing at the river, he agreed to this drive. Fishing for him him meant dressing like a mannequin in the sporting goods store. Because of those vests with all of the pockets and the canvas hat with its narrow brim.
I pointed out the lots where houses used to stand, where us kids in the neighborhood used to rake fallen leaves into mazes that we pretended were our houses. A pile of leaves for a couch, a pile for a bed, a refrigerator, a sink. Now only the concrete outlines of foundations showed.
“Does it upset you they didn’t ask your permission to take them down?” he said. I looked at him for a long time. Then he dropped a wink I saw through the side of his sunglasses, those stupid glasses like FBI agents wear. He squeezed my knee under my dress, his hand a desperate, suckling mouth. He thought those tricks still worked.
After a while I said, “Didn’t your parents tell you about Santa Claus?” and brushed his hand from my leg.
This whole business about my past started when Brad said he was okay with my job at the library, even though he worked as a manager in a bank. He took the job because he liked to dress as someone who worked in a bank. The same reason he wore those stupid shades and carried his certain kind of cell phone. Owning these things meant he was someone.
“I mean the library is good with you coming from nothing,” he’d said. We were having coffee at the shop next to his bank. I don’t like coffee and my cup was half full with cream.
“I don’t come from nothing. I have a family. That’s where I come from.”
“You know what I mean.” He said that a lot when he made me angry and it was supposed to be my fault.
“I do and it’s infuriating. It makes me really mad.”
“I know what infuriating means.” But his look told me he’d needed to think about the word. He wasn’t like me. Words for him came fast, but the meanings required effort.
I decided then to bring him here, to see that I wasn’t from nothing. We approached the street where I used to live. I wondered if tiger lilies still grew on the north side of the house. And if I were to dig right there, would I find the skeleton of the unfeathered bird that had fallen from our tree. I’d held a funeral and my father attended.
“Turn right,” I said. He did and I saw up ahead the light post, its yellowing globe the same. My house was gone. There were no lilies. I felt wronged and almost instructed him to the river. But there. I pointed to the lamp.
“Do you see that?” I said. “I thought it was the moon.”