The Jeep, by Mather Schneider

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.

Yeah?”

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.”

What?”

Car­pools aren’t fun.”

Oh.”

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.”

Why?”

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.

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4 Responses to The Jeep, by Mather Schneider

  1. mel says:

    good work!!

  2. Thank you very much, Jill.

  3. jill marie says:

    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.

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