A Summer Walk

by Tamara Britton

After school let out for the summer, there wasn’t much to do at home except work on chores, play in the fields or the dirty creek behind the house, or climb the maple in our front yard, pulling off the brown seed pouches and letting them propel to the ground. My favorite chore, if it could even be called that, was walking to Bruner’s Grocery. We lived in a small neighborhood that rested in between a city and a town, and Bruner’s was the closest place in walking distance to get groceries. Bruner’s was the love child of a large grocery store and a convenience store without the gas, and was probably the size of the produce section of most any grocery chain. The isles were narrow and the shelves were overcrowded with necessities. The floor had black-and-white-checked linoleum with occasional squares peeling up at the corners, or missing altogether. What I liked most about it was the butcher section in the back, because of all the meat they had displayed behind the glass window. I would tell the large man in his red-splattered, white apron that I needed a pound of lunchmeat, and he’d slice it right there in front of me. He’d weigh it and wrap it in white paper, write a price on it with a black grease pencil, and hand it to me, smiling the whole time.

Sally worked the solitary register. She was a very nice lady, probably in her forties, with sandy brown hair that was always pulled back. Her face looked older than I thought she was, and her lips were hugged with wrinkles. Mom said that was from her regular cigarette breaks. Sally was infatuated with Tom Walker, my favorite policeman. It was a usual scene to see him leaning near the entrance and talking to her. They weren’t dating, but they should have been. She’d tell me to have a good day, and he’d tell me not to talk to strangers, as I’d leave with my cold treasure. On the walk home, I would hum my favorite tunes, inventory the various litter in the ditches, and rub the thick, greasy numbers on the package of meat until my fingertips were black.

The trek to Bruner’s was about a mile and a half, round trip. From our house the road made an S, curving around a row of houses and hay fields. It was shorter to walk across the fields than stay on the road, but I had quit doing that after I stepped on a snake. Around the last curve of the hayfield, another section of houses began as the road straightened. A quarter mile up was a left turn, and then it was another quarter mile to Bruner’s. There was a short cut, but I didn’t take that very often. Immediately past the hayfields was a dirt road behind the last row of houses that went directly to the back of Bruner’s. It was easier to walk. However, an old lady that took delight in yelling at young kids for no reason lived in the first house. I was afraid of her and avoided her at all costs.

Once, when I was twelve and bored, I volunteered to run to the store on an errand. Of course there was no actual running since I enjoyed time away from my younger brother and older sister (mostly my sister). Mom needed a pack of cigarettes, a pound of bologna, and a half-pound of cheese. There was no age limit for cigarettes back then; I bought Mom cigarettes all the time. Salem Lights, please. I jumped off the front cement steps, walked across the dry, brittle lawn, and continued down the gravel driveway on my journey, a crisp five-dollar bill in my right front pocket.

The black road was hot under my bare feet. I walked bare-foot most of the time in the sweltering Oklahoma summers, to keep cool. Today, the black tarry areas in the road were bubbling. I pressed my big toe into the bubble: it burst its black goo on my flesh. I felt no pain. After many years of walking, my feet were just so covered with calluses and thick skin that they weren’t sensitive anymore.

I could smell the essence of freshly cut hay permeate the air. My nostrils flared, and I could feel the delicate lining inside my nose burn. The fields were cut but not bundled yet. It looked like someone came along and flattened the hay. A black crow was in the left field pecking at something hidden from my view, squawking at his struggle. A tasty afternoon snack, I assumed. When I started to reach the end of the first curve, I heard a vehicle coming from behind, so I meandered to the left side of the road to let it pass. The old, red truck slowed as it approached me, and then came to a complete stop. It had a white camper that had faded paint and aluminum-foiled windows. An older man leaned out of his open window and looked at me strangely.

“Care for a ride, little missy?” he asked.

“No thanks,” I answered. “I enjoy walking.”

Cars didn’t travel this road often. I knew most of the neighbors and their vehicles, but this one was new to me.

“Are you sure? It’s awful hot out here.” The way he stared at me made me feel uncomfortable.

“Yeah, I’m sure.” My voice cracked a little bit.

“You don’t sound too sure.”

“No, I am. I’m okay, thanks.” I tripped over my words.

He slowly started to drive away. I could see him staring at my reflection in his oversized mirror. He drove so slowly, I could have easily caught up with him. I moved to the middle of the road so that he couldn’t see me anymore, and he sped up. Rust clung to the edges of the camper. The windows of the door were also lined with aluminum. Dangling below the door were some rusty stairs that were folded up and hung with a black, rubber bungee cord. He drove around the next curve and out of view.

Warm air entered my lungs; it seemed so fresh, like I had been holding my breath for some time. The sun was stinging my skin and moisture beaded on my forehead. A droplet traveled beside my left eye and slid down my left cheek, leaving a clean trail on my dusty skin, and then dangled from my chin for a moment before diving onto my red t-shirt. I lifted my shoulder and wiped my sleeve against my face to dry it. I slowed my pace and started around the next curve.

The red truck was barely visible over the smashed hay, coming around the other end of the curve, headed back my way. I moved to the right side of the road this time and looked away, hoping he wouldn’t stop again. Why is he coming back? What does he want from me? He drove on the wrong side of the road to get closer, coming to a complete stop when he was almost next to me.

“Are you sure you don’t need a ride? I really don’t mind. I could use the company.”

“I’m sure I don’t need one, thanks anyway.” I stepped a little more to the right, off the road a little bit to get far enough away from his truck. The ditch gravel was sharper than that of my driveway and sliced through my thick-skinned heels, but I wasn’t about to step closer to him.

“Aw, come on. I won’t bite.” He stared at me as he put the truck in reverse to keep up with me. “That’s a nice haircut.”

“It’s called a pixie.” Why am I talking to him? I scolded myself.

“A pixie, huh. That’s like a fairy, ain’t it, flying around with wings and givin’ wishes with a wand.”

“Something like that. It’s just short for the summer.” Look forward. Keep walking.

He kept staring as he backed up. I hunched my shoulders forward, trying to hide my small bosoms with my loose shirt, but I couldn’t hide them completely. He noticed and stared at my chest. For the first time since I started getting breasts, I was ashamed of them and wished they weren’t there. “I really do like to walk.” Please go away!

“But it’s real hot out here. I have some ice water and can take you anywhere you need to go.” He leered. I could see him looking at my legs and began wishing that I hadn’t worn shorts.

“No, really, I’m fine. I don’t need a ride. I’m almost there.” I tried to be convincing.

“Well, where are you going?” He stopped and moved the gear lever to the right.

”My grandma’s house,” I lied. “She lives right there.” I pointed across the field to old lady Crawford’s house, hoping he believed me and would leave.

“Well, if you’re sure, little lady,” he said to my back as I was passing by him.
“I’m sure. I’m almost there.”

He started driving away, slowly, and I could feel his eyes on me. I knew he was staring at me through his mirror. I wanted to take off running, but it was so hot that I knew it was a bad idea. Besides, he was leaving.

I couldn’t hear the truck anymore, and my heart no longer felt as though it were ten times normal size. A metallic flavor invaded my mouth, and I licked my dry lips. I felt tears forming in my eyes and blinked them away. I wanted to turn around and go home, but that was the direction he had driven, and I was afraid that if he saw me coming the other way, he might think I changed my mind and come after me. Taking a deep breath, I continued my journey, feeling violated even though I was untouched.

The blacktop was beginning to get hotter so I picked up my pace a little, wincing at the tenderness that remained on my now-sensitive heels. There was no breeze at all. The tornados that traveled through northeastern Oklahoma in the springtime sucked up all the loose air and left a summer of dry, sultry stillness. Hot, dry air was very difficult to breathe, even without exertion.

Some crows were fighting in the field behind me. It reminded me of my sister and me. Lena was older than me, and for as long as I remembered we were fighting. She was very bossy and would bark orders at me. If I didn’t do what she wanted, she would grab my arm. Not my arm—my bicep. She would plant her nails on each side of my bicep and squeeze. It always stopped me in my tracks and left me in tears. It was one of the most painful things I’d ever felt. Mom told me that one day, when we were very young, my aunt Marla came by to visit and saw me and my sister sitting in the front yard, yelling at each other at the top of our lungs. Marla asked what was going on, because we were normally quiet. My mom simply replied, “Tina finally learned how to talk back.” I wished Lena were here with me now. I’d rather have argued with her than see that man again. I reached my hand in my pocket and crumbled the five-dollar bill in my palm, holding tight to it, my comforting connection to Mom.

Unfortunately, focusing on my thoughts, I hadn’t realized that there was the hum of an engine approaching from behind. Maybe it wasn’t him. My chest throbbed painfully with the drumming of my adrenaline pulse. The red truck slowed down next to me and my throat hurt as a lump of fear grasped to my vocal cords.

“Hey pretty lady,” he said, as though he met me for the first time.

I opened my mouth but said nothing. I just looked at him. His hair was mostly brown with hints of gray around the temples, and he had a bushy mustache that was in dire need of a trim. He was wearing a striped shirt with the sleeves cut off at the shoulder. The arm that was hanging out the window had a tattoo of a pair of dice on it with the ones facing forward.

“Snake eyes,” he hissed, noticing my direction of attention. I was startled; I hadn’t realized that I had stopped walking and began again. He grabbed my arm and pulled me close.

“Go away,” I commanded as I pulled loose, a red handprint on my arm.

“Aw, come on,” he insisted. “I know yer hot.”

I ignored him and kept walking.

“Yer sweatin’ awful bad. Hop in and I’ll getcha there faster.”

“I said no! Leave me alone!” My voice came back strong and confident.

The truck inched forward little by little, keeping even with my stride. “You sure? I don’t mind givin’ ya a lift.” He smiled.

“Go on now!” I demanded. I could feel my face getting hot, but not from the sun.

He slowly pulled forward, hesitated, and drove away from me. Looking at his license plate as he passed, I invisibly wrote his plate number on my left hand with my right forefinger: LRRH81.

I saw him turning left into a driveway up the road and picked up my pace. I turned left at the end of the field, before the first house, the home of the lady I feared less than the truck at this moment. I was certain he wasn’t able to see the direction of my escape from his angle, so I tried to walk as fast as possible. The freshly cut hay scratched the delicate flesh on my ankles and calves leaving thin, red lines and small, swollen welts.

I ducked behind a thick row of trees and bushes. Hidden now from the road, I waited, panting and sweating, hoping he really hadn’t seen where I went. After a long moment, I wondered if he actually had turned around at all. The muscles of my small thighs pulsated from squatting for so long. I heard the engine and leaned further in the bush. I looked through a gap and saw the devil truck slowly drive by, oblivious of my location. Thank God! I sat still for a few moments before daring to move and then craned my neck as I leaned into the shaking bush.

Just when I thought I was in the clear, old lady Crawford yelled in my direction from her vegetable garden.

“Look now!” She squawked as she threw a rock my direction. “What are you doing? Get out of my yard you little mutt!”

I slowly stood up, leaned around the bush, and looked toward the road. I took a few steps. When I stepped forward, a blackberry limb from my shelter pulled and snagged the back of my shirt leaving a tiny hole. The dirt was soothing and soft on my aching feet, covering my hay scratches and gravel cuts. I stood still a moment longer until I knew he was completely out of sight before stepping free from my camouflage.

“I told you. Get out!” She marched my direction, grabbed a rake that was leaning against the fence, and swung it over the top as though she had a goal of decapitation.

I looked at her. I wanted to say something, to run, but all I could do was look. I started to walk into the clearing between the bushes and the dirt road when I heard the unmistakable sound of that engine. I was only halfway across the opening, and froze in fear as I slowly turned toward the road. From her vantage point, Mrs. Crawford could see the truck before me. She looked that direction, then at me. I could see her face shift from crinkled anger to staring concern as she looked at the truck again.

“Go now!” She insisted. “Run! Go!”

I turned and looked down the dirt road to the back of Bruner’s, about three blocks away, filled my lungs with hot air, and then sprinted down the dirt road. Even though I was shaded by trees, the air was hot and humid, yet mildly comforting. I could still hear the truck and figured he could see me between the houses.

A man was in his backyard showering his garden at the back fence with a hose. He raised the hose above the fence line, and allowed a misty breeze to caress my skin. It was more refreshing than a glass of iced cold lemonade. Dogs were barking in nearby yards and everything seemed normal. The hum of Bruner’s air conditioner drowned out the noise from the truck’s engine and knew that everything was going to be okay.

I rounded the side of Bruner’s and could see a vision of encouragement, a black and white car with Twin Cities Patrol in large, gold-edged letters down the side. The blue, yellow, and red light rack sat like a crown atop my prince. Tom was visiting Sally. I looked up the road and saw the red truck with a white camper turn the corner, coming down the hill. I shook my head and moved toward the door. Too late dummy! Tom opened the door for me and took a step outside, looking around. The truck slowed down, and the man looked at us.

“Is that the man?” Tom asked, to my surprise.

“Yes,” I sputtered. How did he know?

I stuck out my tongue, and Tom glared a warning at the man. “Mrs. Crawford called,” he said. “She said a little urchin was in trouble. I figured it was you, when I saw you hop around the corner.”

I looked up at him and smiled. I turned inside, and walked to the back of the store with confident steps; the cool linoleum was refreshing on my wounded feet. “One pound of bologna and a half-pound of American cheese, please.” I said, my hand squeezing tight to the crumpled five-dollar bill.