It’s an old army surplus Jeep. My dad traded a Billy goat and 12 egg-laying hens for it. He just drove it home one day, we saw him coming down our long driveway. Lots of people have long driveways in Arkansas, but not many people have one as long as ours. It’s about 2 miles long and you can see someone coming for at least a half mile. Dad likes it because he says no one can sneak up on us. Me, my sister and mom stand staring at him driving up. “Oh god,” mom says, “What now?”
We moved here at the beginning of the summer from Chicago, a few months ago. In Chicago we lived in a fancy house in the suburbs and Arkansas is sure different from that. I’m really not sure why we came. It all happened kind of fast. Dad says he’s going to build a house here someday, but in the meantime we moved into the old barn. We set up the loft like a real house.
Mom says she gets tired of doing the laundry by hand and bathing in the cold creek and never seeing any people. She says she gets tired of raw red hands and insect bites and shitting in an outhouse. She says she misses her family. She says dad is crazy for wanting to live out here. She says paradise my ass.
One night when we first got here I was sleeping and something crawled across my face. We moved all our furniture with us and I was sleeping in my old bed just like back home when this thing crawled across my face. I wiped it away and sat up real fast. It was dark and I couldn’t find what it was but I think it is a rat, because earlier we found a big rat trying to roll a potato out the front door. Another time when we first got here dad and Bill went into the next county and bought a keg of beer. They put the keg in the creek to keep it cold. Watching dad roll that beer keg across the ground was what the rat reminded me of trying to roll that potato across the uneven wooden floor of the barn with his tiny front paws. And then he ran across my face while I was sleeping.
I have a sister who’s two years younger than me, she’s 10, but I don’t like her much. She never wants to do anything fun and she’s always hanging around mom and bickering with dad. I don’t know how I ended up with her. So now I mostly just run around the woods by myself. I build lots of forts and hide-outs and spend hours out there. I love spending time out there in the woods by myself. It’s something I can’t explain. It’s like I belong there.
I can’t spend as much time in the woods now, though, because school started in the fall. I’m in sixth grade and my sister is in fourth. We ride the bus to school. The bus driver is Mr. Wilcox. Mr. Wilcox is not only the bus driver but also the superintendent and my social studies teacher. It’s a small school. From my school in Illinois I already know everything that they are teaching up to at least 4 grades ahead. I argue with the teachers all the time and most of the time I come out right. Mom says I shouldn’t argue with the teachers but dad seems to think it’s all right. He says as long as I get A’s, who cares?
One teacher I argue with is the science teacher Mr. Glendale. Mr. Glendale is a very religious man and is always making comments about god and religion. Dad says Mr. Glendale is a bible freak. Dad says religion is not supposed to be mixed up in school and how good of science teacher could a bible freak be? Mr. Glendale sent a disciplinary note home with me one time and dad got so mad he drove me to school in our old Bronco. We finally had to sell the Bronco, it was the last nice thing we had left from Illinois, out old lives. At least that’s what mom says. Well, dad had to go and get into an argument with Mr. Glendale. And then he got in another argument with mom when we got home. Mom likes Mr. Glendale. Mom’s parents, my grandparents, used to pray at meals when we would visit them back in Chicago, so she likes that sort of thing, you know, God and stuff.
Mr. Glendale has two ladies come in on Thursdays to give us a bible lesson. We call them the bible ladies and they are old and fat and they carry with them their shiny white backboard where they show their pictures of Jesus and Noah. They have these little felt pictures that they can move around and stick to the shiny surface of their backboard to help tell their stories. But the felt pictures don’t stick very well and are always falling off. Sometimes the felt figures fall off behind the ladies as they are talking and only us kids can see them. I laughed about this one time and that was what the disciplinary note was all about.
We are supposed to memorize passages from the bible and get prizes if we stand up in front of the class and recite them. There’s one girl, Lisa Lou Lennox, whose father owns a ranch that our bus goes by every day, and Lisa Lou gets up there every week and says aloud verses from the bible. She always memorizes more than anyone else and she is always dressed nicer than anyone else and she is prettier than any of the other girls.I don’t memorize any of the passages. The prizes you get are just nicer and nicer bibles. I usually just sit there and draw pictures. One time I drew a picture of the bible ladies and Lisa Lou and I drew horns coming out of their heads. Mr. Glendale found it and we argued a little about it but he didn’t try to punish me.
One day Mr. Glendale stood up and announced there would be a state wide poster contest. I’m pretty good at drawing and I was excited. The theme, he told us, was “energy conservation”. I thought about it all the way home on the 45 minute bus ride. My sister and I were the first to get on the bus in the morning and the last to get off in the afternoon. By the time we got home I had an idea. I would draw a car floating in a swimming pool with all these people in it laughing and having a great time. My headline would be “It’s Fun To Carpool”.
I went upstairs to the loft and went to my bed and got a piece of paper and began drawing. By the time I was finished it was around 6 o’clock or so, and I heard dad coming home from somewhere. That’s when I looked out and saw him driving that old Jeep. Mom was cooking supper and we all went outside to watch him drive up. Dad was smiling as he drove it up to the barn and right past it to a place in the shade over by the edge of the woods. There’s an old logging road that cuts off and heads up into the hills, and for a minute I thought he was going to keep driving up the road. But he stopped and he got out and he was grinning like he does when he’s a little drunk. “Got a good deal on it,” he said, putting his arm around mom’s shoulder and pulling her closer and giving her a kiss.
“You’ve been drinking?” she said to him.
“Just look at her,” he said to the Jeep, ignoring mom’s question, “now we can really explore the countryside, we can go anywhere we want to.” He lifted his arm up to the woods and beyond. Mom got out of his grasp and walked around the Jeep. Then she looked at him again.
“I thought we could go for a little drive tomorrow?” he said. Tomorrow was Sunday.
“I’ve got supper almost ready,” mom said, and walked back to the barn.
The next day my sister and I were in the back of the Jeep but over the noise of the engine and the wheels on the rocky road we couldn’t hear what dad was saying to mom. All we could see was his arm lifting up and pointing at things once in a while. We could see that mom wasn’t talking, though. We noticed that she only rarely moved her head when he pointed at something. I was sitting on the cooler, which mom had packed with food, even though we didn’t have any ice. It was a rough ride. My sister and I had to hold on to the sides of the Jeep in order not to get thrown out.
We drove into the hills until the road was only two faint tire tracks. We didn’t know whose land we were on and it didn’t seem to matter.
Eventually we came to a point where the road just ended. There was a small field with a tiny, crumbling old house in the middle of it. The roof was caved in and one whole wall was gone. We got out of the Jeep and looked around. Dad stretched. The sun was high and the autumn leaves were everywhere. The air was good and clean and there was only the sound of the wilderness and the sharp smell of the evergreens.
“Looks like a good place for a picnic,” dad said.
“What about that house?” mom said.
“What about it?”
“You think there’s anyone in there?”
“Who the hell would be in there?” dad said, walking over to it. He turned as he was almost there and called back to us.
“It’s empty.” He looked in and then stepped slowly through and disappeared.
We stood there for a while, and he didn’t come back out.
“Tim?” mom called out. “Tim!” Then I heard her mumble, “You jack-ass,” as she stepped toward the old house. “Stay here,” she snapped to my sister and me, as we started to follow her. When she got up to the house she slowed down and peeked behind the wall where dad had gone. All of a sudden she jumped back and we heard her scream. We jumped and my sister screamed too. Then we saw dad come out and tackle her and they went to the ground. It was playful-like, and my sister and I laughed, and started to go toward them. We stopped when we heard that mom was not laughing, but cussing at him. We stopped there until dad got up off the ground and walked away from her into the woods.
Me and mom and my sister had lunch on a blanket there in the clearing by that old house. Afterwards we waited a long time and didn’t say much. I wandered away but mom kept telling me not to go too far. Maybe 2 hours later dad finally came walking out of the woods on the opposite side of the clearing.We kind of silently got in the Jeep and settled ourselves for a long bumpy ride home.
The Jeep wouldn’t start right away and dad put his palm down hard on the steering wheel.
“That’s good,” mom said, “Break the steering wheel too.”
“Shut up,” he said, getting out and lifting the hood.
“Get behind the wheel,” he told mom, “Try to start it when I tell you.”
She did. “Now,” dad said, and mom turned the key. It started, barely, and dad got in and got it turned around and headed back. It died a couple more times on the way home. This time he did not lift his arm or point to anything as we drove. All he did was drive too fast and drink a few warm beers. And one time he stopped and got out to piss.
The Jeep died again about 100 yards from where dad wanted it parked. We all helped him push it. It was hot, dad was panting hard and sweating heavy as he pushed that Jeep. I was amazed at his strength, and I knew he was pushing most of the weight. Mom kind of grunted and it was like she was going to cry while she pushed. My mom cries a lot. Not Dad, though. My dad does not cry.
The next day is Sunday and dad was out there under the Jeep. He had put a piece of plywood down to lay on. There were prickly pears and sharp rocks everywhere. I walked out with my poster, and stood there staring at his feet as he kicked his heels in the dust.
“Dad?” I said.
“I’ve got this poster here,” I said.“There’s a contest at school. Will you look at it for me?”
He came out from under the Jeep and sat up. He was dirty and grimy and he reached for his beer that was nestled in the gravel. He had pushed it down into the earth a little bit so it wouldn’t spill. He took my poster and looked at it.
“Carpool?” he said, “‘It’s Fun To Carpool’”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “you’re forgetting just one thing.”
“Carpools aren’t fun.”
“You ever ride in a carpool?”
“No,” I said.
“Do you have fun riding the bus to and from school? Do you enjoy having to sit right next to kids you don’t like??”
“No,” I said.
“Did you have fun that day when you came home crying because that 8th grader pushed you down on the floor and took your seat?”
Dad had told me if it happened again to kick him in the nuts.
"Ok, then,” he said, taking another drink of his beer and looking again at the poster. Then he looked off into the woods. “Let’s see,” he said, “You could draw the earth, make it like a big head…maybe with a blindfold around its eyes…and give it a little body with its arms tied around the back of a chair.” He grabbed my poster and turned it around and I handed him my pencil. He drew out his idea. He paused. “And the title could be…‘Earth: The Oil Hostage’.”
He handed my picture back to me, set down his beer and slid back under the Jeep.
When I took my new picture into Mr. Glendale the next day his face went blank.
“Did your father help you with this?” he asked.
“No,” I told him.
“Well,” he said, “It’s very good, Mark, but, did you, uh, have any other ideas?”
I told him about the carpool idea.
“But that’s nowhere near as good as this one,” I said.
“Now, I wouldn’t be so sure,” he said, “Carpool…people in the car laughing and having fun…” “Yes,” he said, “I like that one, I think that’s the one you should do.”
Dad was right, I thought, Mr. Glendale is an idiot.
“Just make a first draft and then we’ll compare the two,” he said.
“I don’t want to,” I told him, “I want to make a finished copy of this one.”
He looked at me like I broke his heart. He always looks at you like that, that’s one of the things I don’t like about him. He reminds me of an old lady, though he’s a man and only 45. He reluctantly gave me a full size piece of poster board.
“Be careful,” he said, “The first piece is free, but if you ruin it, the next one will cost 2 dollars.”
I worked on that poster for 3 nights in a row, and when it was finished I showed my parents. Dad liked it right away, and looked at it for a long time, nodding his head and smoking his cigarette. Mom seemed to have a hard time looking at it. It was like she had to force herself to look at it, or she had to force herself to look away from whatever it was she was looking at in the woods. She likes to sit on the picnic table outside the barn and smoke and stare into the woods. Dad always tells her to take a walk but she never wants to. She sits there any time she gets away from her work, which isn’t really that much time at all.
The weird thing is, later, when I won the poster contest I didn’t feel very good about it. The posters were submitted to a state board that chose a winner from each county. I won our county and that’s where the poster contest ended. There was no final winner, just a bunch of winners.
Mr. Glendale stood up in front of the class one day and made the announcement. It bothered me the way he did it. He stood up there with a sad face and called my name. I just sat in my seat and looked at him.
“Come on up,” he said, waving at me.
I got slowly to my feet. I didn’t have many friends in that school. My feet were heavy as I walked to the front of the class. It felt like I was about to get swatted.
“There it is,” Mr. Glendale said, indicating with a faint move of his hand the certificate of award that was on his desk. He didn’t hand it to me, he didn’t even look at it. He looked right at me. I picked it up. It was a piece of paper with blue fancy writing on it and my name and some strange signature. There was a gold embossed seal in the upper right corner.
I went back to my seat. As I sat down I heard the same snickering that I hear when Lisa Lou Lennox recites her verses.
The bus ride home from school is always depressing. You look out the window and you see the same things, the same houses and the same gullies and the same stands of trees and the same farm animals and the same mountains in the distance. That day I rode home with my certificate was no different. I was sitting about 4 rows back from Mr. Wilcox. My sister was a couple rows back and on the other side. We never sat together. We were the only two people left on the bus. Mr. Wilcox looked at me in his big rearview mirror. I was staring out the window and holding my certificate with both hands.
"I hear you got an award today,” he said into the mirror.
Sometimes it seems like he looks in that mirror more than he looks at the road. I always wonder how he keeps from crashing. But, I guess he’s been doing it for a hundred years. I guess he could do it in his sleep.
“Yeah,” I said. He just looked at me some more and it was almost that same look that Mr. Glendale had. Only Mr. Wilcox seemed angry about something.
“Listen,” he said, “I think you should pay more attention to Mr. Glendale, he’s only trying to help you.”
I didn’t know what to say so I just looked at him.
“And you should pay more attention to the bible studies,” he went on, “you need to learn your bible.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he said, “It’s the Lord’s word.”
I laughed a little, I couldn’t help it. I thought about what dad would say. Mr. Wilcox looked disappointed and kind of shook his head and looked back at the road.
At a certain point in the ride home we come to a particularly empty area of highway and this is where Mr. Wilcox does his afternoon bus cleaning. He opens the door and the speed of the bus on the highway creates a vacuum inside, lifting all the paper and trash off the floor, whirling it around and eventually sucking everything out. Each day I watch the trash zip by the window, a storm of love notes, paper cups, candy wrappers, lunch sacks and lost homework. I held onto my award certificate as the corners rattled in the wind until Mr. Wilcox shut the door again.
That night after dinner I showed the award certificate to my parents and they congratulated me. I put the poster behind my bed. That was a month ago and it’s still there.
I hope we move away from here soon.
Dad has been working on his Jeep for the last month. Every spare minute he is out there under it. Mom says he is neglecting the garden and everything else.
Then last night something happened.
Dad was out there under the Jeep, as usual, and all of a sudden we heard a scream. Me and my sister were sitting at the kitchen table doing our homework, and mom was doing something at the sink. Dad came bursting in. He had a look in his eyes like he gets when he is very drunk. It scared us, the way he charged in like that, the thunder of his boots and the blood on his head and hands and the animal sound of his bellows. He stood there swaying, holding the left side of his head. His face was red and so contorted with pain it was like I didn’t know who he was. He staggered toward mom, who stopped what she was doing and went to him and steadied him.
Some gasoline had fallen into his ear, and then he hit his head on the underside of the Jeep while trying to get out. Mom didn’t panic, though. She went and got a glass of water from the bucket on the floor and sat down on a chair and eased dad’s head down onto her lap. He let himself be bent down. She soothed him and turned his head sideways and gently poured the water into his ear. She knew just what to do, as if she had done this exact same thing many times before.
“Just forget that damn thing,” mom leaned her head close to his ear and whispered. “It’s ok. Just forget it, please, it doesn’t matter…forget…”
“I’m sorry,” he kept saying. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”
In a few minutes he calmed down and lay there in her lap, moving his lips as if silently praying. I told you something happened. I know things will never be the same. She ran her fingers through his graying hair. The water ran down his face and into his eyes.
I was born in Peoria, Illinois in 1970 and have lived in Tucson, Arizona for the past 14 years. I love it here, love the desert, love the Mexican culture (most of it), and I love the heat. I have one full-length book of poetry out called DROUGHT RESISTANT STRAIN by Interior Noise Press and another called HE TOOK A CAB from New York Quarterly Press. I have had over 500 poems and stories published since 1993 and I am currently working on a book of prose.
Thank you very much, Jill.
I liked this story, because it was so down to earth. I felt like a kid right alongside the boy and his sister.I grew up in the Bronx in a city neighborhood, but I could still identify with the way kids act towards teachers and the way kids treat each other. So I think this really drew me in right from the beginning, and I enjoyed it.