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African American Coming of Age Contemporary

 “It’s inside the distributor, there.” Leaning under the hood, De’Veon used a long brown finger to point at the back of the air filter housing. All his fingers were long and brown, dark on the tops and a kind of coffee brown on the undersides with darker lines at the creases. They extended out from giant palms on the ends of his long arms, yet everything about the man was in proportion. He was just very tall, and lean with it.

I remember when we brought the ‘bird home this time last year, the week before Christmas. From the passenger seat I watched De’Veon’s right hand cover the shift knob as he moved deftly between gears. His left hand held the thin-rimmed wheel, gently I noticed, as if too firm of a grip might crush it.

“Your Grandpa knew what he was doing when he bought this,” De’Veon said over the bass rumble of the V8. “Pontiac built some great cars, but this ’71 Firebird is one of their finest.”

I grunted and looked out to my right. I wondered what Grandpa would have said about a black man driving his precious car. Or living with his daughter.

Nana had said that with Grandpa gone now the car was just going to rust away, unless I took it. Of course, I wasn’t going to say no, but it was a stick shift and that was something I’d had no experience with.

De’Veon had grinned at me across the kitchen table as Nana said this. It was like he understood what I was worried about without me having to say it out loud.

“Never fear Ed,” he said, “I’ll teach you to drive it.”

“And look after it I hope,” Nana chipped in. “Your Grandpa was always out in the garage working on it so I guess it’s not too reliable.”

“Staying out of her way,” De’Veon mouthed at me. I snorted into my coffee even though everything the man did rubbed me up the wrong way.

I didn’t know him very well back then. Mom had brought him home on July 4th. That got us off on the wrong foot because grilling had been my job since Dad passed and there he was flipping burgers and buns like he owned the red-domed Weber.

I was in my room on the Playstation when Mom came in.

“Your food’s ready Teddy.”

My eyes stayed glued on the screen. “I’m not hungry Mom.”

I expected her to leave but she sat down on the bed. “Is this because I asked De’Veon to grill?”

“No.” My eyes were filling up and I couldn’t see the screen clearly but I kept working the controller in my hand.

“Teddy, I like him and he likes to cook. I want him to feel welcome but I don’t want you to feel pushed out. Anyway, I wanted to see if he’s as good a cook as he says he is.”

“A test huh?”

Yeah, in way it is. I’m sorry, I should have warned you first.”

Neither of us spoke. After a while Mom got up from my bed. “Well there’s food down there when you’re ready.”

He moved in just after Halloween, and now here he was helping Nana out with some jobs around her tidy little ranch.

The Firebird sat outside the garage all through January, and the keys lay on my desk. I was desperate to get in, fire it up and hear the beast rumble, but there was that third pedal to deal with.

Early in February De’Veon stopped in my bedroom doorway while I was doing my homework.

“You’re looking puzzled Ed,” he said.

“Calculus,” I grunted.

“I could help with that if you like. I am an engineer y’know.”

“I know. Thanks.”

De’Veon turned to leave, and then turned back. He rubbed his chin between finger and thumb.

“Y’know, I hate to see that Firebird just sittin’ out there not being driven. You’d be doin’ me a real favor if you let me show you how to drive a stick.”

Well I wasn’t eager to spend time with the man, but I really wanted to drive the ‘bird to school so I didn’t have much choice. We started out at the High School parking lot on Sunday afternoon. There was a lot of kangaroo hopping at first but I will say De’Veon was a patient teacher. After a couple of sessions he let me take her out on the road. It was jerky at first but I got better every time I drove it.

Just before Easter I demonstrated my ability to start off on a hill without rolling back.

“Man, you are trained and we are done!” De’Veon exclaimed. That was it, now I could drive the ‘bird to school.

A few weeks later, as we were finishing dinner, De’Veon hit me with a question.

“When you goin’ to change the oil in that car?”

“I um, I don’t know,” I mumbled back.

“Have you ever done an oil change?”

“Well no,” I admitted, “But I don’t think it’s that hard is it?”

“How about tire rotation? Ever done that?”

I had to admit that I hadn’t. So Saturday morning there we were doing an inventory of my Dad’s tools in the garage. Once we knew what we had, De’Veon had me jump in his truck with him and we ran over to the auto parts store to buy oil and a filter.

After lunch and a little instruction I dressed in my oldest, scruffiest jeans and sweatshirt and went out to do my first oil change. It was going okay I thought, until I couldn’t get the filter off. I was lying on my back under the ‘bird and there wasn’t a lot of room, but no matter how hard I gripped and twisted the metal canister wouldn’t budge.

I should have just gone into the house and asked De’Veon for help, but that would have meant admitting it was harder than it looked. So instead I lay on the concrete with the cold seeping up into my bones and wrestled and wrestled with it. My hands kept slipping and more than once I scraped my knuckles against the oil pan.

Then I heard footsteps. I looked down past my feet to see De’Veons giant white Nikes.

“Everything going okay there Ed?”

I wriggled out and found myself looking up at him silhouetted against a bright blue sky.

“I, I can’t get the filter off,” I admitted.

De’Veon nodded. “I think we saw a strap wrench in your Dad’s garage. Like me to get it for you?”

I nodded and he ambled off, returning a few minutes later with an unfamiliar tool in his hand. It looked like a screwdriver with a short belt attached to one end. He bent down and handed it to me.

“You know how to use it?”

I admitted that I didn’t.

“Uh huh. Well, let me get down there with you and I’ll show you.”

With that he lay down next to me and wriggled on his back under the car. We were so close I could see the pores on his nose. I watched as he slid the strap wrench into position and showed me how to use it.

From there he stayed with me all afternoon, watching and talking me the job. A couple of weeks later it was tire rotation. Again, he watched and talked me through what I had to do, patiently, step-by-step.

After that each weekend passed in much the same way. Over lunch on Saturday De’Veon would ask how I was doing with my homework and if I said it was all done we’d spend the afternoon outside on the Firebird.

One of the first things he taught me was about protecting the paint. We found some old towels and placed them over the fenders for that purpose. We changed spark plugs, we swapped out the air filter. Each weekend a different project but De’Veon’s style was always the same. He wasn’t one to lecture; he’d stand back and watch, just keeping himself available if, or rather when, I got stuck.

This week just gone I had a problem with the ‘bird I couldn’t figure out. It would start and idle just fine, but give it any gas and the engine would die. I took a few steps back from the open hood to think about it some more.

De’Veon must have seen me because he came ambling across the yard.

“Problem there Ed?”

I moved around to one side of car and started to explain. He stood across from me and listened, all the while looking at the engine.

“So I’m pretty sure it’s the carburetor,” I finished.

He stroked his chin and nodded. “Well it could be, but I think it’s more likely to be electrical.”

I looked up at him. “Why do you say that?”

He kept stroking. “We’ll get to that, but there’s something I want to say first Ed.”

This sounded ominous. I turned my eyes down to look at the engine.

“You don’t like your Mom callin’ you Teddy, do you?”

“Um, no,” I mumbled.

“Well don’t you think it’s time to tell her?”

“S’pose.”

“Well if you don’t she’s going to be callin’ you Teddy when you bring some cute girl home to meet her, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want that.”

“No.” I realized one of the spark plug wires was unclipped so I reached in to put it back in place.

“So ask her to call you Ed. Pick your moment, but be sure to do it. And sooner rather than later. If you don’t she’s gonna be babyin’ you for the rest of her life.”

I said I would. Then De’Veon explained how electrical problems were more common than carburetor faults, and a whole lot easier to fix. Then he suggest I start with the condenser on the distributor. That was when he reached out his long brown arm to point it out.

About an hour later and after a trip to parts store we had the new condenser fitted. I climbed into the driver’s seat and slid the key home. That’s when I noticed De’Veon slipping into the passenger seat.

I turned to look at him and he nodded. I pumped the gas with my right foot, turned the key, and the V8 roared into life. I let it settle into a steady burble before pushing down on the pedal.

The revs built, the engine noise grew louder. It didn’t die the way it had been doing. I turned it off and twisted to face De’Veon. He had one of those big brown hands raised up.

“High five Ed! You fixed it!”

Our hands met, and so did our eyes.

“Ed,” De’Veon said. He suddenly looked serious. “There’s something else I want to ask you.”

I raised my eyebrows slightly, an involuntary reaction.

“Go on.”

“This is big Ed, but hear me out please.” He took a breath. “I want to ask your Mom to marry me. Would you let me do that?”

“God!” I grasped the wheel with both hands and looked out through the windshield. “I mean, wow!”

“What do you think Ed? It’s up to you man.”

A million thoughts rushed through my brain before one stuck. “You gotta look after her De’Veon. After all she’s been through. And you gotta look after yourself. She can’t go through losing someone again, she really can’t.”

“Of course man, absolutely. You have my word.”

“Then um, I guess. Yeah.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw De’Veon stretch his big arms out wide. I turned to face him and he was grinning the biggest, broadest grin a man could grin. He leaned towards me, his long arms came around me and he hugged me hard. My arms went around him the same way.

A thought struck me and I pulled back slightly. We were still very close. “So you’ll be my Dad.”

De’Veon moved his big hands onto my shoulders. “No man, I’ll never be your Dad. But I am excited about getting to be your Step-Dad.”

I nodded, “Me too De’Veon, me too.”

December 23, 2020 20:02

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3 comments

Beth Connor
00:17 Dec 31, 2020

An amazing take on the prompt! I really loved your story. De'Veon seems just who Ed needed in his life. Wonderful job.

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Nigel Holmes
17:01 Dec 31, 2020

Thank you so much!

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21:03 Feb 06, 2021

Hello Mr. Holmes, could you please tell me something about yourself. I am in high school in Edmonton. I enjoyed your story, I even like your title. Could you tell me something about yourself? I read your short story for English class and my teacher wanted us to do research about the author. I was not sure which Nigel was you or if any were you. Thanks

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