Omerza Walking
Stephen Phlaja

Joe Omerza is in History when the principal, standing in the doorway, finds him and motions for him to come out of class. In the hallway, their voices are hushed, and Omerza leaves immediately. On the stoop of his house, he knocks snow off his boots and unzips his jacket in the mudroom before coming into the kitchen. Aunt Helen, eyes swollen, sits at the kitchen table with his mom, the two of them holding hands. Her face is pale and drawn tight against cheekbones. Uncle Jack’s been in an accident underground. They’re still looking for him.

Before his mom has a chance to stop him, Omerza turns, grabs his gloves again, and heads to the Studebaker. At the iron mine, he walks the hopper tracks. The lift grinds, bringing miners up in the cage and pulling out loads of greenstone on the skip. Hands in pockets, he leans against the hood and watches them bring in a shovel that had been stored for the season. Around eight, a blaster carries Jack’s drill out of the cage, and hours later, three miners bring out Jack’s body wrapped in a blanket.The blasters say they cleared the stope: Everybody got out. Didn’t see Jack.

Looking into the darkness, the Crew Boss stands with his hands by his sides and waits for Jack Hanickar to crawl out. He does not. In the settling dust, they used handpicks to dig into the greenstone, pulling free the snapped drift support and part of the cedar roof. The Oliver Safety Man inspects the stope and stands up at the collar, stamping out a cigarette butt: Drifts weren’t reinforced. ‘Bout the time Grandel yelled, Goddammit Hanickar, move! he’s already sucked under. You gotta bet there’s something like ten foot of rock on top of him.After the day shift ends, Omerza’s car doesn’t start right away. He cranks it again, the engine finally turning over. He looks up to see miners coming out of the Dry House, dressed in slacks, their overalls stuffed in duffel bags.

Still sitting at the kitchen table, his mother writes the news to his brother, Michael, who’s on tour in the Pacific. Omerza spreads his hands apart to describe the collapse and how much space was left between the greenstone covering Jack’s body and the roof of the stope: Couldn’t have been less than two feet.

For three days, Omerza skips school and watches. They load down the cage with drift supports, the Safety Man standing close to the frame and smoking. Omerza walks near to the woods and imagines seeing Jack’s face the moment he realized the support was coming down. He wonders about Jack’s legs, how they tried to move before being shattered, how his body buckled under the rock’s weight.

Omerza walks uptown, away from the mine, smoking and kicking at the snow. At night, he brings the Studebaker around the lake and drives out past Bodack’s cabin. Although the air stings his face, he rolls down the window and rests his arm on the door. The Ely Miner publishes an article about the accident, saying Jack had given as much to the War Effort as our boys fighting the Japs. Omerza’s coffee cools while he reads through it. During the week, Omerza eats pastry at his grandma’s house with cousins who come up from Silver Bay. Although they haven’t seen each other since the Fourth of July parade, they sit at the kitchen table and don’t say much, waiting for the wake. At the funeral, Omerza pushes his shoulder under Jack’s casket with his dad and four uncles as the sanctuary doors open in front of them. The family watches, silent, uncertain where to put their hands. Father Orner preaches about sacrifice, says that Jack made it so his family could have a comfortable life. His robes sway when he moves underneath them.Omerza picks at his fingernails and thinks about the weight of the casket.During the liturgy, Aunt Helen stares forward, the congregation kneeling then standing around her. Weeping loudly, she covers her mouth with her hands. They bring the casket up the aisle and Aunt Helen is held up by Omerza’s mom. The family, voices hushed, lingers in the corridor of St. Anthony’s. Helen’s body is turned away, her hands shaking. After the funeral, she pulls quilts over her body and lies still on her bed, the door cracked less than an inch. For the next two weeks, Omerza and his mother say the Rosary with Jack as the special intention. Omerza pools the beads in his hand and keeps his eyes focused on his fingers, running them over the crucifix. They sit on the davenport and her hand feels cold inside of his. Tears streaming down his mother’s face, Omerza says words deliberately (world without end, amen). The family places Uncle Jack in the storage vault at the cemetery because the ground is still too frozen to bury him. That night, Omerza stays out at the lake and smokes. He sits inside the cabin with a Miller, the trees swaying in the dark and moonlight breaking through the emptiness of the branches.

At the Piggly Wiggly, Emily Everett comes out of the second aisle and moves into Omerza’s slot. Her saddle shoes squeak against the floor, and her hair falls into her eyes before she brushes it behind her ear. Omerza continues ringing up the woman in front of her, but takes quick glances to see Emily holding her basket. The woman hands him her money, and he stuffs it into his drawer before looking up. Emily is there. Without saying anything, he bags her groceries. Their eyes meet, and Omerza can’t tell if she knows him. She gives him her money. The bills are dry in his hand. Thanks. You bet.Omerza looks away to no one else in line. He organizes ration cards in his drawer, straightens bills, and looks up to watch her body’s subtle movements. She pulls on a knit hat. Her hip pushes on the glass door.After she leaves, Omerza hears only the wall clock ticking. He keeps his hands moving, sorting the paper bags under the counter and surprising himself when he says her name under his breath: Emily Everett. The floors glisten in the overhead lights, and Omerza grabs the mop from the back after Benny Zupich comes out of the front office to get the drawer. Filling the bucket with water, he remembers having seen Emily a couple of times at the theater holding hands with some Serb. Ernie comes to pick him up at five-thirty. Omerza puts on his gloves while Ernie stands in front of the glass door. He keeps his hands in his pockets as Omerza comes out, and they walk towards the Ford. You know Emily Everett? Omerza spits, looks away from the truck down Sheridan.Ernie laughs: Yeah, I know her, ace.Whadda you know?Ernie looks at him, still laughing.I know you’re a lousy bohunk if you want a broad who’s monkeying with the Serbs, that’s what I know. I mean, my god, have some pride! The air bites. They get into the truck.Before going to sleep that night, Omerza sees an enlistment notice in The Miner and cuts it out. He folds it and thinks about the Saturday they’ll be signing guys up at the high school gym. Tucking the notice underneath a cigar box on his dresser, he thinks about going and pulls off his socks before lying in bed. The house is quiet as he stares at the ceiling, thinks about Michael’s ship, and wonders where he might be stationed when he enlists.His mom sees the notice while she’s dusting. He comes home from work and she’s holding it, bottom lip quivering. Omerza looks away, and she is pointed: You’re going to finish school, I’m telling you that right now. I’ve already sent your brother, I’m not going to lose you one minute sooner than I have to. Awkwardly, Omerza stands in the hallway, his eyes tracing over the pictures on the walls.If you think your father and I are going to stand by and let you live under this roof with you planning to show contempt for all we’ve given you, well, you’ve got another thing coming.Omerza finally looks at her. I’m signing up right after my birthday. Like Michael signed. Tears well up in her eyes and they look at each other before she pushes past him, to the front of the house. She hangs a star in the window for Michael and proudly tells her cribbage friends that her son is serving. Eventually, his first letters are dropped through the slot in the front door. She holds each gently for hours. Michael works as a cookie making beef stroganoff and playing cards during his free time. His sentences are packed closely on Bible-thin paper: You know, this war’s really not anything at all, but two countries throwing guys at each other. We’re killing, but we don’t know why sometimes.Omerza’s disappointed in Michael. He tells Ernie Mike’s got no backbone: Sure, they need cookies, but I want to get my hands dirty. Get a little blood on them, make those bastards pay for me not having sugar in my coffee. Staggered in groups of four or five, the red and blue air mail envelopes keep coming. We’re moving again, but no one knows where we’re going. I haven’t heard ‘cause they don’t tell us. Afraid we’d write home and the Japs’d get their hands on it, I guess. That’d be the end of us, so I suppose it’s better just not knowing. When Omerza’s dad works the day shift and comes home at three, the family sits around the kitchen table while he reads the letters out loud. The nights he works until twelve, Omerza comes home from school, and he and his mom sit on the davenport together. The guys are always complaining about the food, but I don’t really think it’s that bad. ‘Course, I’m making it, so that might have something to do with it. I sure do miss Mom’s potato salad. Make sure you have some of that when I get home.Omerza’s mom fingers the paper, smells the envelopes, and wipes tears off her cheeks. While Omerza reads, she places her hand inside of his and looks away. I love you and think about you all the time. It’ll all be done soon. My love, Michael.At night, Omerza sits out on the porch and smokes while his parents sleep. Holding the opened letters, he turns them over in his hands, the mudroom light reaching out, until cold drives him back inside.

After weeks of trying to string together words about Jack’s death, Omerza still cannot. Aunt Helen and the two kids move in with Grandma Anne, Uncle Jack’s mother. To help Grandma Anne out, Omerza tells her he will clear the walk. The snow, though it falls every other day, is dry and on Saturday morning, he walks to the house to shovel the driveway. He finishes and comes inside at ten to drink coffee and sit with Grandma Anne. Kicking snow off his boots, he stands in the foyer, and the kids get up from a game of checkers to hug him. He pretends to steal Marty’s nose, holding his hand high above his cousin’s small head. Marty laughs, grabs at Joe with one hand and touches his face with the other: You don’t have my nose, Joe.Snow melts off Omerza’s pants as he stands in the doorway. He gives his coat to Grandma Anne and, on his way to the bathroom, passes the bedroom where Aunt Helen is sleeping.Grandma Anne and Omerza sit and eat pastry that she rolled out last week. They talk, and she asks if he can make space in the basement for Helen and the kids: There’s not enough room for them in the guest bedroom. It’d be a better deal for them to have one of the rooms downstairs anyway.Omerza agrees and walks behind her as they descend into the basement, Grandma Anne holding the rail tightly. The basement windows, covered with snow, filter the light. Three decades are built up on the cement floor, nothing thrown away, but stowed carefully in cardboard. Grandma Anne shows him the area under the stairs where she would like boxes moved. Gotta save everything these days. You can bet we’ll need it again.After Grandma Anne leaves, Omerza opens a box with rubber bands and plastic bags pouring out. Must be almost a decade’s worth of trash here, he thinks, wiping dust off the cardboard. He cusses under his breath trying to decide where to start. In the basement corners, he finds piles of junk-- mason jars, broken lamps--and kicks at the boxes when he knows that Grandma Anne isn’t standing at the top of the stairs. Occasionally, she calls down: Did you need anything else then? Omerza doesn’t look up: Can’t complain. I’ll be up before long.After a couple of minutes, Marty runs down the stairs, knocking against the wall, and yelling, Joe, I want to help.Omerza, knee deep between boxes, looks around to find small things for Marty to carry, shoeboxes and bags full of ribbons. When Omerza hands him a box, he runs underneath the stairs and back into the room. Omerza tells him, Look for rubber in the boxes so we can bring it down to the school next Saturday. Just don’t monkey around with the glass. While Omerza tries to organize the storeroom, Marty gets curious and crawls around, opening the boxes and looking curiously. Standing on one, the top can’t support his weight and he breaks through. Dust floats in light beams, and Marty struggles to pull himself out, his legs bent underneath his body and against the old clothes piled inside.What’d I tell you, slugger? He climbs over the boxes, pulls Marty out by his armpits and sets him on the cement. You’re gonna get cut up. You wanna go to the hospital?They pile up the rubber and metal, and Marty helps decide what they should keep. Digging through the junk, they find three crocheted doilies, and Omerza sends Marty upstairs to see if they should be kept. Omerza flips through dime novels and is careful not to crush a lampshade when he sits on a box. Marty gets upstairs after tripping on the top step, and Omerza can hear him running across the floor, asking Grandma Anne about the doilies. Their muffled voices seep through the floorboards.Omerza keeps going through his box. Underneath a book of sheet music, he finds Uncle Jack and Aunt Helen’s wedding announcement clipped from the paper. Uncle Jack’s face looks stunned in the picture, and Omerza reads over the first couple of sentences of the article. Marty’s feet knock down the stairs, and Omerza quickly folds the announcement into his back pocket.Running back into the room, Marty climbs over the boxes to open a new one.Hey, you gotta be careful, buddy. What’d Grandma say about the doilies?Marty opens a box and pulls out a tablecloth.Grandma Anne yells down, Joe, keep the doilies--Your grandfather and I got them for our wedding.Omerza has Marty tie up old copies of The Miner in bundles because he can’t get him to sit still. Omerza holds the papers up and explains the pictures from a front page at the end of the Great War. Grandma Anne makes coffee and blood sausage for lunch, and Marty drinks coffee because Omerza drinks it. They sit together, looking out the window.Omerza says, Looks like snow, hey? and Marty agrees.After eating, Omerza carries Marty on his back down the stairs. He keeps sorting, and Marty sits watching him. Sunlight inches across concrete to the center of the room.Omerza points at an old, broken Singer: We need to pull that whole outfit too.Marty gets up to help him, but Omerza can’t reach back to it and stops to sort through one of the larger boxes. Marty sits quietly again, and Omerza pulls out paper, a glass bottle.Suddenly Marty says, Dad’s in the mine, he’s stuck down there.Omerza stares at the mottled glass while Grandma Anne’s feet shuffle across the floor. He hears her talking to Dorothy.Marty says, It’s been three weeks. He’s stuck under-ground.Seconds pass.Omerza keeps his hands moving, looking for words. Marty sits, kicking his legs. Omerza digs underneath fabric and paper, looking to see if there’s anything else at the bottom.Finally Omerza says, I know, and continues to dig in the fabric.He looks up to see Marty still staring at him, still kicking his legs on the box. His eyes are placid, and Omerza tries to find something else for him to carry. They keep moving. When Omerza finally decides he can’t do it all in one day, he and Marty come up the stairs in the kitchen’s dry air. Marty’s nose begins to bleed, and Grandma Anne, at the stove, sees him.Oh, god, not again.Marty puts his hand to his face, blood dripping.Like a regular fountain, Grandma Anne says. Joe, grab me some ice, and she holds a wash cloth to his nose. Blood blooms in the fabric, and Grandma Anne has him put his head back. Omerza pulls on his boots, saying, Looks like I’ll be back tomorrow to finish. Gotta heckuva lot left down there.He pats Marty on the head: Don’t bleed out, slugger. You’re gonna be okay.Opening the front door, he steps into the snow. The walkway is covered again, and his cheeks tighten in the chill. He breathes in quickly, takes the wedding announcement out and slips it into his breast pocket.

On Sunday, it snows again, and Omerza walks back to Grandma Anne’s with his scarf pulled high. The back door is frozen, and he has to force open the seal. Inside, the air is musty, and the radiator knocks in the living room. The kitchen is empty. While he pulls off his boots, he calls out for Grandma Anne, but no one answers. Moving through the hallway, he sees Aunt Helen lying away from him in the first bedroom. Embarrassed, Omerza pulls the door closed.After quickly looking for Grandma Anne in the other rooms, he guesses she took the kids out to the store and goes back to the kitchen. Descending into the basement, he puts as little weight on the steps as he can and pulls the light string at the landing. Cold air comes in through the windows, and Omerza touches the seals where they leak. Omerza hauls two boxes at a time. On one trip, he grabs three and tries to negotiate the doorway under the stairs, but his foot catches and he loses the top two. They break open on the concrete, papers spilling out. Omerza cusses under his breath, kneels down to gather them together.Then footsteps creek across floorboards and give as Aunt Helen moves from the back of the house to the kitchen. Omerza freezes on the ground. The pipes fill and rush when she turns on the faucet. He pulls everything together as quickly as he can, picks up the box, and shuts off the light. Hearing Aunt Helen walk to the stairwell, he ducks away into the storage room and closes the door. She moves to the top of the stairs and peers into the darkness. The wall is cold as he presses his back against it and stops breathing. Aunt Helen stands at the top of the stairs. Less than a minute passes. Omerza can feel his heart beating in his chest, and he swallows hard. The door closes, and he can hear her walk across the kitchen. Omerza listens carefully. She sits at the table. Clutching the papers against him, his arms fold across his chest.He hears her move to the bedroom and quietly stuffs the papers away. He steadies the boxes stacked against the wall. Omerza pulls the light string again and goes back to moving the boxes. After an hour, he hears the screen door open, slam, and the kids come running in. Their footsteps pound through the kitchen before Omerza hears the door to the basement open.Grandma Anne yells, Joseph, are you there? You bet. Marty scampers down the stairs into the cleared room.You have a lot left then? Marty climbs over the boxes in the storage room. Omerza looks around, Oh no, you just gotta get down here and sweep up. Marty runs up the stairs again as Grandma Anne says, That’s good, you come up for some coffee when you’re done.

On Thursday, Omerza’s dad drinks at Dee’s Tavern for most of the night and comes home late. Reading in his room, Omerza hears him drop a coffee mug in the kitchen. Lying in his clothes from the day, Omerza wonders if his mom is awake as well, lying in her bed. Though he expects her to come out, she doesn’t, and he waits, listening. His dad slams the icebox shut and bumps into the table. All the sound eventually quiets down, and Omerza imagines his dad’s body sinking into the davenport. Staring at the ceiling, Omerza listens. The next morning, the air in the house is stale. Omerza presses his feet carefully on the ground, and his mouth is dry. In the bathroom, he splashes his face and drinks from cupped hands. The linoleum is cold as he gets into the shower, and the water doesn’t warm up until the last minute. Morning light slips through the curtains and reflects in the mirror as he gets out of the shower. Pushing the curtain back, he glances out to see if it snowed again during the night. Another couple of inches are on the ground, and it’s still coming down. Shaving, he catches his chin, and blood quickly wells up. He cusses under his breath and pulls toilet paper off the roll. It sticks to his skin. In the mirror, his eyes look dark. Blood spreads through the tissue, and he cusses again, throws it in the toilet and unwinds a foot.In the bedroom, Omerza dresses and pulls his wallet from the pants he left crumpled in the corner. He picks up his shirt and notices Uncle Jack’s wedding announcement in the breast pocket. Uncle Jack’s face drawn tight, stunned by the flash bulb, looks past the camera. Omerza realizes he’d never seen Uncle Jack in a tie. Aunt Helen looks sad, holding Jack’s hand and staring forward as though she isn’t certain what’s happening. Omerza tries to remember how old she was when they were married, what his mom has told him. He smooths the crease before putting it in a bottom drawer beneath long underwear and socks.The smell of his mom’s cooking hangs in the air. He comes into the kitchen, and she is turned away from him, pouring grease from a pan into a Ball jar. He touches the cut to see if it’s still bleeding and sits awkwardly watching her move to the sink and back to the stove, cleaning her hands and placing the bacon on a plate. Finally, without turning she asks, You’re coming home right after school then? He answers quietly, I hafta work ‘til five. He wipes his wrist across the cut. Turning, she puts food in front of him: Looks like you got yourself there. He meets Ernie outside. In the falling snow, Omerza touches his face again, and there’s still blood on his finger. Ernie doesn’t notice the cut.Walking in the street, Ernie starts talking about the war news he heard on the radio: Japs are crazy out there fighting for those islands, Omerza. Your brother’s done if they decide to pull him into that mess, I’m telling you that much. Omerza keeps his head down, wipes his wrist against his chin through the scarf. Ernie keeps talking about the news, and Omerza thinks about Michael in the hull of the ship with planes plunging through the deck.He finally says, Mike’s got his head on straight, he’ll keep clean. Won’t get into anything he can’t get out of. Ernie is persistent: It’s not about him--it’s about MacArthur. They throw Mike into that, it’s over. Japs start this kamikaze shit, you gotta bet there’s nothing they can do. Omerza keeps his head down. Ernie says, It’s crazy, ace, nothing’s stopping them. Not God himself. Omerza doesn’t answer, and Ernie finally stops talking. They stand by the side of the road to let a car pass. The wind whips up again, and Ernie says, Cold one, ‘eh? then shuts up for the last three blocks. After school, Omerza stands in the back of the Piggly Wiggly, watching the truck back into the bay. Pulling produce on dollies, he talks to Big Al, a Swede trucker from Duluth who smokes constantly and gives Omerza a Camel and a light as they pull delivery into the storeroom. Al talks about the snow while handing a box of produce to Omerza: It’s a damn skating rink coming up One Sixty-Nine, I’ll tell you that much. ‘Tween here and Tower, I swear to God, you gotta bet there’ll be half the town in ditches before this one’s over. Omerza laughs: Think they’d have sense to stay off the road. Keep it clear for the guys who need it. Snow blows in between the double doors and the truck, and Al pulls another box down: Human nature to do the stupidest thing--Take the Olds out for the night, hell, nothing’s gonna happen. Got the gas ration, what’s the problem? They laugh and hold cigarettes tight in their lips. Al changes the subject: Heard those damn Krauts got routed in Stalingrad. Ruskies beat the hell outta them.Omerza brings the dolly closer: Oh yeah, I heard it on the radio. Smiling and handing the box down, Al says, Matter of time before we blow through there and take Berlin.Al asks about Mike, and Omerza passes on what he read in the last letter, but Al doesn’t seem interested. Distracted, Omerza drops a box hard and cusses. Al laughs: Watch it, Joe--gonna take your foot off. Omerza puts his cigarette back in his mouth and lifts the box. Smoke rises in the dock light and mixes with the snow. Al asks, So your brother expect leave soon?Doubt it, don’t think he’ll be home for at least a year-- ‘til the tour’s done. Omerza keeps the scarf pulled above his chin as he heads inside: Mike’s taking care of himself, should be fine, Al.When Omerza pushes through the doors again to get the last of the load, Al’s shuffling through the boxes: When you gonna get out there and fight like your brother then, Joe--make a name for the family?Omerza loads the last box onto the dolly: Gotta finish school first. The old lady’s riding me to stay. Be out there before long, though. Al rubs his forehead.Gotta bet I like a kid who respects his folks, tell you that. Hell, I’d be out there cutting up some Japs if it wasn’t for the damn asthma. Sign up first thing. Omerza restocks the shelves before closing, and Emily is suddenly there. Her pants are tight, and Omerza kneels on the ground, wiping his hands on his apron. He’s stunned, staring at her back. Legs folded underneath him, he keeps close to the ground and stops to look at her. She turns and moves out of his line of sight, towards the doors, paying for her groceries. Omerza stops shelving, feels the weight of the canned peaches he’s holding. He can hear her move outside and sees Benny lock the door behind her. He puts the can on the shelf, picks up the empty box, and looks for the broom. Walking the aisles, Omerza thinks about seeing her hip press against the door last week. He finishes putting everything away and smiles, touching his mouth. After he puts the broom up, Omerza gets his jacket out of the back and says goodnight to Benny. He pulls his gloves out of his pockets and walks into the parking lot.