My friends and I waited our turn to ride the Model T. It idled on the edge of Alvina Elementary’s grass field, spitting oil, coughing smoke, rattling, shuddering. Black fenders arched over narrow tires, spoked wheels more like a motorcycle’s than a car’s. The starter crank hung loose as a dog’s tongue below the radiator, which together with the round headlights made a tired old face. My father built this Model T, the body from lumber and the chassis from scrap parts. He called his creation The Hack.
Five of us climbed inside the haul bed. Varnished panels set inside whitewashed mullions corralled us. The roof that extended over the driver’s seat was lattice so wasn’t really a roof. The driver’s seat was a box spring wrapped in a towel. My father, dressed in fresh blue jeans and a blue t-shirt and his newest cap—same as what he wore farming raisins, but cleaner—settled himself behind the laminated wood steering wheel then spoke over his shoulder: imagine you’re on a relaxing drive around the world. We braced for a boring ride around the schoolyard.
The spring carnival broke Alvina’s own rules. The school taught order first. We students raised our hands to speak in class. When the bell rang at the end of recess we froze in place until the teacher on yard duty blew her whistle. We lined up on the playground to be led to class, to lunch, to the bus at the end of the day, whether we were five, nine, or thirteen-years-old. Alvina Elementary comprised the entirety of the smallest school district in California. A hundred students attended Kindergarten through eighth grade. There were five teachers plus a few aides. The superintendent and principal were the same man. Its district boundaries didn’t include a town, but single houses scattered around vineyards, orchards, dairies, and feed lots. Some of my classmates left school every fall to follow the crops up California’s trunk and returned with the crops over summer. For the rest of us, Alvina’s green walls and play fields, combined with family farms, completed our worlds. My father chaired the school board and my mother presided over the PTA. For me, Alvina was an extension, a reflection of home: similar rules, same demands to follow. But one Saturday a year there were game booths on the lawn between classrooms: darts, bowls, a wheel of fortune, a dunk tank. Music from the cake walk filled the cafeteria. Strangest of all, my father’s Model T ride promising to take us away.
My father raised his voice above the engine and asked us to imagine the porch posts we passed as totem poles. I tried to play along, but still saw the posts where misbehaving students spent recess. The Hack turned and was passing a murky swamp—the blacktop basketball courts—when my father shouted, Alligators! Look! In the water beside us! Everyone hang on! He turned his cap around backwards, leaned over the wheel, and doubled our speed away from danger, toward another danger—our drive around the world would be anything but boring.
We slalomed between tree trunks, dodging mad elephants.
Powered out of quicksand by the sandbox.
Reversed out of a dinosaur’s nest in the corner of the softball backstop then raced across the football fields pursued by mother Tyrannosaurus.
My father conjured these threats in our minds, talking us through exotic places and brushes with mortality, each scenario more fraught than the last, wailing and yipping and finally rejoicing when we escaped, all while driving to The Hack’s limits.
We slid across the haul bed’s weatherproof paint, banging elbows and scuffing knees, holding on to the woodwork, the seat back, each other.
I’d never known my father like this.
He’d been developing his script for weeks. He mapped Alvina on a yellow pad, adding notes to every landmark he could drive past, in square handwriting only he could read, working out the route The Hack would take. He asked cryptic things at the dinner table: what do you think’s scarier, mad elephants or alligators? Once, I saw him in his office chair, eyes closed, arms out as if he held a steering wheel, and a satisfied smile lifted his mouth—I crept out of the room, afraid to break the trance, spoil his mood. My father was usually angry about something. I think he hated the hundred-acre vineyard he farmed for a living. The daily chores, as well as daily dread over fickle weather, the quality of his raisins, and their future market value, sapped his time and patience. He took his frustrations out on the family, especially me, his oldest, the only son. I liked how the ride changed him, even if it was only pretend.
The Hack chased away space aliens trying to invade the Alvina carnival through a wormhole in the bus barn then came to a stop on the grass where the ride had begun. My father lowered the tailgate and thanked us for traveling with him, calm again, his cap the right way round, for the benefit of those waiting to ride for the first time.We played along too, pretending the trip had indeed been boring, but my friends and I whispered—your dad’s crazy; that’s not my dad—and joined the back of the line to ride again.
John Carr Walker’s critically acclaimed story collection, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside 2014), was featured on the Late Night Library podcast. Recently, his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Newfound, Gimmick, Shantih, Gravel, Hippocampus, Five:2:One, The Toasted Cheese, Inlandia, and Split Lip. A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.