“It’s going to snow,” my mother’s voice said through the telephone. “The whole city is shutting down.”
I went to the window and held the blinds open with two fingers and looked out. It wasn’t snowing yet, but the street was less crowded than usual, and the few people on it hurried quickly to wherever they were going. The night sky was bright; the dense clouds reflecting back the city lights.
“I'm worried about your uncle,” my mother said. “Please find him. He shouldn’t be out wandering around in the snow.”
I told her that I would try my best. When she hung up, I returned to my desk and looked at the computer screen for a few minutes, and then turned it off, retrieved my coat from its hook and went out, locking the door behind me.
My uncle liked to spend his time in a neighborhood of taverns and gambling parlors, not so far away from my office. I headed to that area and began to search through the narrow alleyways, sticking my head in here and there at places I knew he frequented—dimly lit rooms that smelled of booze and cheap food. They were almost empty, these places. Outside, the snow had begun to fall: big heavy flakes that stuck to my face and piled up on the pavement, catching the glow from the neon signs. I had been up and down most of the alleys by then, and I was starting to think about giving up and going home when I saw the a familiar figure staggering down the alley towards me. My uncle wore a worried, distracted look on his face, and it seemed to take him a moment to recognize me, though when he did, he clasped my hand in greeting.
A couple of inches of snow had accumulated by the time we made it to the bus stop. While we waited, I studied my uncle. He looked just as shabby as ever in his old coat, worn trousers, and dilapidated loafers—shoes which were completely inappropriate for such weather. He wasn’t drunk, at least, though on the other hand, if he hadn’t been drinking, I was certain he had been gambling.
“Did you lose big?” I asked.
He laughed, suddenly animated, and patted me on the elbow.
“No,” he said. “Tonight I didn’t do too bad.”
The bus didn’t come. The steady stream of cars slowed to a trickle and those that passed crept along in the slushy snow. The handful of other waiting passengers had given up and wandered away, probably back to the bars. The snow was as good an excuse as any for that.
“I don't think the bus is coming,” my uncle said.
I leaned out of the bus shelter and looked down the empty stretch of road.
“If it wasn’t for you,” I muttered, “I would have been home by now.”
“Come on,” he said. “We’re going to have to walk.”
“You're crazy,” I said. “We’ll be walking all night.”
“Better than standing here all night.”
At first we walked on the sidewalk, where the snow now lay up to our ankles, but after a while, when the traffic had ceased entirely, we began to walk in the street, where it was easier going because of the ruts that the car tires had cut through the snow. It was an odd sensation, walking in the street, as though we had entered into a zone normally forbidden to us. And with this sensation, which was something between freedom and transgression, time seemed to dilate and become unreal, so that it was impossible to know, or even to guess, how long we had been walking for, or if there had been, indeed, a time and a city outside of this night and this snow.
My uncle walked slightly ahead of me, so that I could see the flakes of snow gathering on the shoulders of his coat, building up and up in little heaps and then sliding off in patches. We walked through an area of office buildings, then through an area of factories and empty lots, and finally though a neighborhood of cheap apartment housing, until near one block of apartments, my uncle stopped and pointed across the street, towards an all-night convenience store, the kind that stocks prepared food under lamps, around the clock.
“I'm hungry,” he said, and without hesitating he crossed the street and went inside. I followed him, happy enough to get a break from the wet and cold, blinking in the bright fluorescent lights. My uncle had already picked out a sandwich and a container of instant noodles.
“Go on,” he said. “Get what you want. It’s on me.”
I poured myself a flavored coffee and carried it to the counter. I reached for my wallet but my uncle caught my hand.
“It’s on me,” he said again, and pulled out a large wad of cash.
He laughed when he saw the expression on my face.
“I told you I didn’t do so bad tonight.”
He handed the money over to the teenage clerk and we made our way to one of the booths.
“We shouldn't be walking around like this,” I said. “All these dark places and you have a wad like that on you.”
He waved away my concern and spooned up the broth from his noodles. I leaned forward and looked out the plate glass window at the snow.
“Maybe we should stay here,” I said. “At least it's warm. There’s a long way to go.”
But my uncle wanted to continue, and so after a few more minutes we started out again. The snow seemed to fall more heavily. The night was colder, emptier. We trudged along in silence, our heads tilted against the wind, until, after some time, we saw two lights in the road ahead of us, like glowing red eyes. A car had slid off the road, and the driver’s attempts to free the vehicle had caused it to slough further off. As we drew near we saw to our surprise that the driver—a middle-aged woman—was still inside.
“Let's see if we can help,” my uncle said, and he tapped on the glass of the window.
“Hi,” he called, waving. “We can help you! Don't worry!”
He must have looked harmless enough, because the driver opened the door.
“The car is stuck,” she said.
“Yes. Yes, I can see,” my uncle said. “We'll push you out. When we push forward you have to tap the gas.”
We stood behind the car and pushed as hard as we could, really throwing our bodies into it, rocking forward and back, but the wheels spun in vain.
“No, no,” my uncle said, going back to the driver’s window. “The timing’s wrong. Haven’t you done this before?”
“No,” the woman said. “I never drive in the snow.”
“All right,” he said. “Let's switch places. You push with my nephew and I’ll drive the car.”
The woman hesitated for a moment and then got out.
My uncle got behind the wheel and spent a moment studying the various dials and switches, then called for us to push. The motor revved, the wheels caught and the car jolted and shot forward. The woman and I stumbled, catching ourselves with our hands in the snow. When we stood up we saw the taillights of the car getting smaller.
“Maybe he won't come back,” I said. I laughed, to show that I was joking, but until the car came to a stop a few seconds later, I wasn't so sure myself.
When we caught up to him, my uncle was beaming at us.
“See? What did I tell you?”
We held a brief conference about what to do next. It turned out that the woman lived not far from our neighborhood. We agreed that my uncle would continue to drive the car back to the woman’s home, from where we could easily walk the rest of the way.
“Don't worry!” he declared once we were settled into our seats, the car-owner in the passenger seat, me in the back. “Driving in the snow isn't easy for anyone. But I drove trucks for years. Over the mountain roads, in all kinds of weather.”
We went slowly, passing without further incident through the empty streets. When we reached the woman's neighborhood, she directed us toward her house, but on the very last turn, the slick road finally proved to be too much—the car began to slide. The steering-wheel spun uselessly in my uncle's hands, and the car coasted gently off the road. My uncle tried every trick he knew to free the car, uttering a flurry of curses under his breath. The owner and I even got out to push, but it was no use.
“Well,” my uncle said, calm again now as he emerged from behind the wheel. “At least it's close to home.”
We bid the woman good night and headed on our way. It was a short trip now; within a few minutes we crossed the boundary into our own neighborhood. It was only then that it occurred to me to ask my uncle about what he’d said, about being a truck driver.
“I never drove trucks,” he admitted, after a short hesitation. “I wanted her to feel safe in the passenger seat. And you too.”
At first I thought he was joking. But his expression was perfectly serious: he really had thought that we might be afraid, and so he had told us this lie in order to calm our anxiety.
We reached home a few minutes later. My mother, who had stayed up waiting for us, hurried off our wet coats and boots, and in no time we were drinking hot tea, and my uncle was regaling her with the story of our adventure.
I might have forgotten about that night entirely, but for the fact that, a few weeks after the snow storm, my uncle was arrested. Upon receiving the news, my mother and I rushed to the police station, where the detectives insisted on speaking to us before we could see him. There were two detectives—men in neat black suits, who more than anything seemed annoyed by my uncle’s case, as though it, and he, and even my mother and I, were beneath them. My uncle had been involved in a crime, they informed us. It was good that we had come, they said. It would be for the best if we could convince the suspect to come clean. The details of the case were simple, as far as they were known: one evening a group of men had been gambling with dice, not in a formal gambling establishment, but in the back entrance of a bar. The game had broken up quickly, as the result of some disagreement, and my uncle, along with another man—a well-known associate of his—had fled. As they were climbing down a fire escape, the man had fallen to his death. My uncle had run away, though not before he’d helped himself to a large amount of cash that his friend had been carrying.
My mother and I were stunned. We had known the man who had died, a life-long friend of my uncle’s. It was inconceivable that my uncle could have harmed him in cold blood. The detectives merely shrugged. Likely it had been an accident, they said. But there was still the matter of the money. In any case, they said, the suspect had better talk; his silence was only going to hurt him. It was at that point that they let us into a room where my uncle was sitting. He didn't seem especially surprised to see us, but asked whether we brought any cigarettes. I slid the pack that I brought for him across the table.
“What happened?” my mother said, unable to contain herself.
He made a dismissive gesture with his hand.
“It's nothing,” he said. “They have everything wrong. A mistake. That's all.”
We tried then, and at other times, to induce my uncle to come clean about what had happened. But he refused to discuss the matter. Only after my mother and I left the station did I realize that the accident had taken place on the night of the snow storm, perhaps only a few minutes before I had run into my uncle amid the drinking dens, the neon signs, and the falling snow.
The police, angry at my uncle’s stubborn silence, threatened to charge him with manslaughter, but in the end they settled for a simple charge of larceny. They had the testimony of the teenager in the convenance store, who had seen the wad of cash, the origins of which my uncle was unable to explain. He received a sentence of five years imprisonment stoically, and whether he is ashamed of his actions—feels remorse for them—I have never been able to tell, because he has never spoken to me of that night, except once, during my first visit to him in prison. On that occasion he appeared younger than I remembered him, neatly dressed in his prison jumpsuit, his body possessing a healthy vitality. He joked with me and told me of his recent successes in jailhouse gambling, turning a couple of loose cigarettes into whole carton in a game of dice.
“Of course,” he said, laughing, “I lost them all in no time.”
At the very end of our hour together, he reached across the table and took my hand tightly in his.
“Remember the snow?” he said. “The snow in the headlights? It was like we were driving in a tunnel. A tunnel of falling snow, just you and me and that woman.”
A wistful look came over his face, as though he were fondly recalling the darkness, the snow, the warm interior of the car, lit by the many dials on the dashboard.
“We never even learned her name,” he said. “But she would never have gotten home without us. And just think,” he said. “We almost got the car right to her door. In streets like that! That was a good thing we did.”
His smile broadened, lighting up his face.
“Yes,” he said. “We did a good thing.”
ALEX ANARES is a writer and educator.