The Walk

The sun stood high in the sky – – shining deceptively bright, frozen like everything beneath it. It was cold for February, even in Omaha. We’d been walking for what seemed like hours, our ears growing accustomed to the sound of snow crunching beneath our heels, the timbre of our frost-tinged breath occasionally broken up by the chorus of slush-soaked rubber as car after car sped pass us. My grandfather’s car had broken down and we were headed somewhere to find help.

My mother worked out west at that time. Out where the businesses were, out where rich people lived and black people didn’t, out where I’d one day go to school. She didn’t drive. My brother and I would often ride out there with my grandfather to pick her up. We’d hum along to the sounds of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson as he quizzed us on the spelling of different street signs and buildings we’d pass. My cousins rode out with us that cold winter day when the winds rolled to a slow stop over the city and my grandfather’s car died. “Let the girls go on, we’re men, we’ll make it home alright.” My grandfather said as the sound of his Okie twanged baritone voice echoed in the sparseness of the snow covered lot. We watched as they all piled into the cab, my cousins pointing and laughing at us from the warmth of its backseat.

My brother and I stood there staring at them not wanting to show weakness or fear as they drove away. We watched them turn the corner, the sunshine refracting through the icy air, the cab disappearing in dirty yellow flashes broken up by the bleached birch tree skeletons that lined the parking lot and faced the street.

The sun was now a white glow behind a dusty curtain of cloud and sky. It hurt my head to look at it so I stared at the ground as I walked. The sound of ice breaking beneath my steps only added to the aches the cold produced. My cheeks were numbed by the sharp, arctic wind that whipped and lashed at us if we even thought about slowing our walk through the pristine white world that surrounded us.

My brother would occasionally stop and beat his hands against his leg in order to feign some kind of sensation into them. We were dressed for winter inside a car and not winter on the plains. But we continued on like men because we were with my grandfather and he treated us as such. I had wanted to go home with the women and I knew my brother did too but we wouldn’t dare leave him out there alone or dream of letting him down. Plus, I was sure that once my mom got home she would send someone back out here to help us.

My grandfather was a black man. No politically correct term or idea could describe him better. He was dark skinned and stout like a prizefighter. He had big, rump roast size fist the palms of which were rough and sandpapered, you could still feel them long after he’d shaken your hand. I found a rusted out metal file in his toolbox once that reminded me of them.
He’d grown up in the segregated south, and spent time in the military and working the meat packing plants between here and Chicago. He knew the difference between black and white. And though he never said it, I knew that he didn’t want me to ever have to find out what that difference was.

The part of town we were in was foreign to us. I began to wonder if my grandfather had ever driven us this way before. We were surrounded by white; it covered the ground, it hung above us in the sky and ti colored the faces in the cars that continuously passed us by. I tried to concentrate on the tall ashy mounds of snow that had hardened and been pushed by plows against the curb. I wondered where our help was. Then I tried to focus on anything besides the pain of the wind on my skin, the numbness that ran through the inside of my body and the hopelessness I felt at that moment. It was getting colder and I was sure it would be dark soon. I was twelve years old and I was convinced that I was going to freeze to death that February day.

“Paw, is anybody gonna come and get us?” I asked, but he didn’t reply.

“You always giving people rides Paw, how come ain’t nobody come out here to help us?” He just kept on walking as fi I hadn’t said anything.

“Hey, hey stop we need some help!” my brother yelled out to a passing gray car.

It began to slow so he rushed pass the curb and out onto the street, the splash of his snow boots muffled by the once again hardening, frozen water.

“Don’t you ever do that again, boy, you hear me?” My grandfather yelled as he reached out and snatched my younger brother up as if he was weightless.

“But Paw, they were gonna give us a ride to a tow truck so we could get your car fixed.” My brother said as matter of factly as if it was the Gospels themselves.

“They weren’t gonna do a damn thing for us. Don’t you ever do that again! We’ll make it okay by ourselves.” Then he waved off the elderly couple in the gray car who’d come to a complete stop and might’ve given us a ride, or at least few minutes out of the cold.

We passed snow covered fields where not even animal tracks had yet been made; we passed groves of barren hackberry trees whose branches were weighed down by child-size handfuls of snow, we passed car after car and still no one came for us. And with each step we took the sun continued to dip further in the sky.

Even in the dark I knew we were still far from home or anyplace I recognized. The sidewalks were clean and the streets recently plowed. The houses were well maintained and covered in various colors of brick or vinyl siding. The neighborhoods were quiet and looked to be without incident. We continued to walk; my grandfather maintaining his stubborn silence.
We didn’t die that night. We walked through the darkness and the cold, we walked through frozen fields and neighborhoods, and we walked until we could no longer feel our feet.We walked until we saw cars speckled in cinnamon colored rust and the chocolates and mocha skin tones of people like us. We walked until we came to a brightly painted diner a long ways from where we left the car.

The diner was warm, bright, busy, and I noticed a change in my grandfather’s mood as soon as we reached the door. The air inside was a mix of food and hard work, a smell not uncommon in the Midwest at that time. Steam floated from the pastel blue plates and cups on the counter. Off in the distance between the black and brown faces that peppered the room I could see a rack of comic books. My brother was already on his way over to them when I turned to tell him.

“I’m gonna go call your uncle and have him come pick us up, y’all go sit at the counter and order y’all something to eat.”
I didn’t know why he didn’t have someone come and get us earlier or why we hadn’t stopped in the dozen other-restaurants we’d passed on our way here. But there was something different in his eyes now. A sense of pride, relief or maybe he was just happy to be in someplace that was warm. He just seemed to be thankful that we has made it back from our walk through the cold, pallid world in which we’d broken down.

I was just happy to be going home.