Image: Lia Liao

Their front yard was just half a block to the end of 60th where the sun-yellow food truck, hemmed in by snow tracks, sat squat in the cul-de-sac. It would take a grown-up all of three minutes to walk from the house to the truck, but for little boy legs—even sturdy ones that had shed the toddle of just two years ago—this trip would be a trek.

Niyi wore his purple snowsuit with pride. He looked back at the window where his mother stood, then up at the cloudless sky. After the ice storm, all of the street’s creatures were tentative. Except for the drips of icicles on the edges of gutters, the well-walked 60th was post-snow silent. But half a block away, sleep-strained eyes notwithstanding, neighbors spotted the Free Coffee and Hot Chocolate! on the yellow food truck. And never mind dogs that needed walking, one-by-one, they made their way for the hot drinks and easy chatter. Inside that tiny cul-de-sac, morning voices rose against the dawn.

Having put it on himself, Niyi’s wool hat sat lopsidedly on his head, ears and curls out, brushed by the frigid air. His mother’s latest undertaking was to line the inside of his clothes with ankara bought during trips back home. He pulled at the wrist of his glove. “You’ll be the only one with a style like that.” She’d smiled into his eyes and shrugged, satisfied with her efforts.

At home, Niyi’s mother moved about the living room, his little sister swaddled tight, face squished to the middle of her breasts. If the baby could talk, she might’ve said she remembered this very heartbeat in the watery dark of a few months earlier. From the front window, Niyi’s mother could see a little ways down the street. Where sight ended, she imagined him walking to the truck and back, safe. He disappeared.

Stomping-boot-by-stomping-boot, Niyi cracked down the sidewalk. At the pink house with blue trim, he bent forward to smell the pine tree smell, as his baba had taught him. But it was his mama who’d told him to “notice everything, especially the air.” So that was what he did. He watched the slowness of the dark dissipating in the earliest moments of the dawn; it happened fast and slow all at once. “The sun is w-a-k-i-n-g up,” Niyi whispered to the sky. “Good morning, sun.”

 

Arms hung behind his neck, Niyi’s father paced the backyard. He looked up, as if for an answer. His wife watched him, too, but from another window. She cradle-held the baby and guided the nipple to her daughter’s mouth. After a little while, after checking the clock on her phone again, she went out to the back.

“How much do you think it’ll be?” She looked around the yard. The ice had split the trunk of the bigleaf maple. The remaining branches, weighed with rings of ice, scraped the ground. Too late now for regrets about not calling the tree company sooner. It would be days, weeks before anyone could come.

“I don’t know.” More than they couldafford, he thought. “With everything else going on,” he shook his head, “who knows?” She knew. In the last year, it’d been one thing after another, after another.  She peeked in at the clock above the stove. It hadn’t been that long; still, she thought Niyi might be on his way back by then.

That half-block to the truck would be the farthest he’d walked on his own in the neighborhood. As soon as Joe from next door told Niyi’s father, “They’re handing out hot chocolate just up the street—can you believe it, on a day like this? Well, kudos to them and lucky us!” the little boy had run inside and asked his mother if he could walk up and get some.

“I’ll get a cup for you and Baba, too,” Niyi had promised, hoping his thinking of them would help his case. The heat had been out a full day and a half. Pretending to camp—hands over the fireplace, eating food from cans and sticking marshmallows over logs—was worn out. They were at home and craved its warmth.

 

As Niyi stepped into the cul-de-sac, the orange tabby cat that belonged to everyone and no one in particular dashed across his path after a solo squirrel braving the cold. Niyi waited in line—six feet, he made sure—behind a very tall woman with a patchwork coat and furry hat. His turn came as quickly as he’d hoped. In his best good manners voice: “Three cups of hot chocolate, please.”

“Three?” He couldn’t see the teasing frown behind the woman’s cloth mask. “Are they all for you?”

“No,” Niyi said with an earnestness that revealed his age. “One is for me, and two are for my mama and baba.”

“Wow, lucky them! Three hot chocolates coming up.” When her partner came back with the tray of drinks, the woman pumped a bottle of sanitizer, rubbed her hands together, and lowered the carrier down the side of the truck. She winked at him in that grown-up way.

Niyi reached up. “Thank you.” Two hands holding the tray holding three cups of chocolate. Steadily, foot-by-foot on slippery snow was how he walked so they wouldn’t spill. Eyes on his hands, he couldn’t notice everything now. And he couldn’t wait to get home.

It was right in front of the tan stucco house that he decided to stop. He put the carrier on the sidewalk and took two sips of his chocolate. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone go in or come out of that house. Not even once,” Niyi’s father had said. Out on their walks, Niyi’s mother would pull his hand to cross the street before they reached the stucco; it didn’t give her a good feeling, she’d say. Especially the decrepit truck that sat in that same spot in the driveway—Evergreen Co. written on its side, in fading ink.

 

Niyi watched the thickly curtained windows of the house, looking for movement. Light shot through the hanging garden prism and rainbow-danced on the sidewalk snow. And then the front door opened. 

Niyi’s parents surveyed the tree damage while gauging each other’s worry; for sure, Niyi should be back by now. His mother ran in her mind the rules they’d taught him about safety: the houses he should avoid, things like that. She reassured herself with how much he seemed to understand. Niyi’s father looked up. The sun had made its way.

Nothing left, they held each other in the tumbled yard. Alone, just them, like they’d been six years earlier. In another country, in another time. And yet, even in that childless once-upon-a-time, it was as if their children had forever been with them. They’d tried to—and couldn’t—recall themselves as they were before all this.

It started to rain lightly. “I think I’ll walk up the street, just in case,” Niyi’s father said.

“I’ll go check on the baby.”

 

Two houses from home, there Niyi saw it: the arc of seven colors spanning the width of the street—a spot of light in the now dimming sky. He slowed his pace, trying to name every shade. But when he saw his father in their front yard, he wanted to run.

“Baba, guess who lives in that one house.”

“Which house?”

“The tan colored one Mama doesn’t like. It gives her a weird feeling. Guess who lives there!”

“I don’t know, who?”

“Mr. Paul. I talked to him. I told him about the tree that fell in the back. He does tree stuff.”

“Hmm, is that right?”

“Yeah—I mean—yes. He said he’ll come later with his chainsaw and truck. And something about neighbors helping neighbors.”

Niyi’s father took the drinks. “Well, thank you for this.” He kissed his son’s head. “So you went to the food truck all by yourself, and got someone to come help with the tree?”

Though they both knew the answer to the questions, Niyi gave an enthusiastic “Yes I did!” For his baba, noticing his independence never got old.

His mother waited at the door.

“Mama look, it’s a rainbow!” He waved his arm toward the street. “It’s fading, so you gotta make a wish.” Niyi’s mother closed her eyes; joy and disaster hover the same horizon. She exhaled the relief of her boy’s safe return.

About an hour later, Mr. Paul pulled up in his truck.

Olufunke Grace Bankole’s works have appeared in various publications. She is a 2020 Oregon Literary Fellow currently writing her first book, a novel-in-stories about Nigerian mothers and daughters.

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