But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
From “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns
The day after Christmas, the year Daddy Jim’s truck caught on fire, I was 8 and the only kid on the farm. You’d think it would be heaven — two grandparents, two parents, two uncles, an aunt, and a great-grandmother, all giving me presents at once, but I didn’t like it.
Of course, on Christmas Day, being the only one wasn’t bad. But after opening up all the packages, I was also the only one to pick up the bright paper and put it in the recycling bag and pull the ribbons off and save them for next year. Plus, my parents, who were usually pretty good at playing with me, were busy.
When I asked Mom if she would help me put together the model dinosaur I got, she put her hands on her hips like she does and said, “Honey, you know I’ve got this big meal to prepare.”
Well, I didn’t know.
She put a warm hand on my back and gently pushed me towards Dad, who was watching football with my uncles and aunt. I figured he would play with me because we didn’t even have a television at home, and I didn’t think he liked football. That’s what he told Mom anyway. But when I asked him, he said kind of quiet like, “After the game, kiddo.”
Daddy Jim saw I was bored, so he started in teasing me.
“How’s school, Little Lady?” Daddy Jim would ask, his booming voice filling the room. “You break any hearts yet with that pretty face and sweet smile?” Of course, he usually asked the question in front of my two uncles who had these goofy grins on their faces waiting for my answer.
“Oh, Daddy Jim,” I would say, flipping my long brown hair back so he could see my pretty face, “you know I’m not interested in boys, yet.”
“Glad to hear it. But you didn’t answer my question about school, now. How do you like third grade?”
So I’d tell all about third grade and how I especially liked math, but hated writing, not really writing, I wished they would let me write on the computer because I liked that but handwriting was a pain, really. My hands all cramped, and how come I have to hand write when I’m going to be writing on a computer all the time when I grow up? I told him all that and he just laughed. I guess at the way I said the things I said.
When I told him all these things, when he laughed, he seemed younger somehow. I thought even he might play with me, with the walkie-talkies he gave me for Christmas. “Maybe later” was all he said as he settled back to watch the game.
Bored, I went into the kitchen to ask Mama Sue for a drink. I just asked her for a drink, one drink, so she pulled out cranberry juice, which she should have known by then I can’t stand, and apple juice which I liked okay and regular milk which I still can’t drink because I’m lactose intolerant and soy milk which is, well, soy milk. My mom put chocolate in it so it was okay, I guess.
“Can I have that Coke?” I asked hopefully.
“I don’t think your mama lets you drink caffeine, darlin’.”
“How about that Sprite?”
“Well, okay, but don’t tell your mother. She doesn’t want you drinkin’ many, you know.” She pulled the drink down from the shelf and popped the top for me, leaning down to get to my level. I knew what was coming. “How’s school, sugar?”
So I told her. The story was a little different this time. I told Mama Sue about reading and how much I loved it. Mama Sue was a librarian at the public library, so she liked to hear about that. I also told her about my teacher and how I felt that I had been unjustly treated by being punished with all the talkers when I hadn’t been one of the ones to talk. I always told Mama Sue about the injustices in my life because she listened and didn’t lecture me about it being just life and everything like my mother did.
I had to answer the “How’s school?” question a few more times before it was done, but when it was finally finished and nobody would play with me, I settled into a little corner behind the Christmas tree to read the books I got from Mama Sue. Next thing I knew, my mom was calling me. She always waited until I was busy doing something before she ever called my name.
“Ellen!” She called and I didn’t answer. “Ellen?” I still didn’t answer. “I know you’re in there by the tree readin’. Now, come on. You want to go with Daddy Jim to get the horse feed, don’t you? He wants to go now during halftime.”
That was it. Finally, something to do. I was out of my cubby like a shot and putting my riding boots and coat and hat that I kept by the door. “Why didn’t you say so, Mom?”
“Well, I thought I just did say so.”
I tugged on the left boot and huffed. It was always the tough one. “He hadn’t left yet has he?”
Mom paused from taking out the butter and putting it on the counter to put her hands on her hips. “Do you think Daddy Jim would go anywhere without you if he could help it?” she said, smiling.
I smiled back and opened up the door, rushing out the door so fast I forgot to let the screen door close easily and it banged shut. I heard Mom yelling to close the door lightly, like she always did, but it was muffled by the door and I ignored her. Daddy Jim was waiting in the old truck and reached over to open the door.
“Come on, little girl,” he said smiling, “The horses are hungry, and I want to get back for the second half.”
I grabbed the doorframe and seat and grunted as I swung up in the big truck. The vinyl on the sides of the doors and the carpet covering on the seats were faded and ripped. On the floor lay little mounds of moldy looking hay.
“It smells kind of funny in this old truck,” I said, wrinkling my nose.
Daddy Jim sniffed the air. “Funny? I don’t smell anything.” With that, he put the truck in gear. I looked down to watch his big hands, wrinkled and covered with dark spots, jerking the stiff stick around. The truck finally moved, bucking, before it settled into a steady rhythm, and we headed down the gravel drive.
I moved around uncomfortably in my seat, feeling a spring sticking up through the cracked vinyl. “Are you ever going to get a new truck, Daddy Jim?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Don’t want to spend the money. Besides I kind of like this old gal. She’s been faithful for 30 years.” He patted the dashboard.
“Oh,” I said, moving closer to the window where the padding was thicker.
We were quiet then, and I leaned close to the window, my breath fogging up the glass. I was amazed as usual how green everything was here in the winter. My mom told me it was winter grass the farmers planted; you had to live far enough south for it to grow. The black cattle stood bold against the bright green grass and the evergreens crowded the side of the road, dressed in a darker green.
It seemed like a long time, the trip to Dodson, the closest town that was big enough to have a feed store. Gray’s Feed and Seed was an old yellow building in the center of town. It still had wooden floors, and I usually went in just to hear the sound of them beneath my feet, but Daddy Jim told me to stay in the truck, of course. Soon he was back, though, followed by a tall man in dirty overalls who slung the 50-pound sacks easily into the back of the truck. It didn’t seem to bother him that the tailgate on Daddy Jim’s truck didn’t work anymore.
“Merry Christmas,” said Daddy Jim, shaking the man’s hand.
The man smiled, his teeth white against his dark, leathery skin. Then he sniffed the air, putting his hands on his hips. “Mr. Jim,” he said, “do you smell somethin’ kind of funny?”
Daddy Jim turned and sniffed. “Why, I suppose it smells kind of smoky, don’t it?”
“Yeah, it does.”
“Reckon somebody’s got a wood fire. It is right chilly.”
“I reckon so. It doesn’t take much to make a skinny man cold,” said the man and the two stood there, laughing and talking a while.
I squirmed in my seat, getting bored.
“That’s a fine young man,” Daddy Jim said, finally climbing into the truck. He had to slam the door a couple of times before it stayed closed. “He always has a handshake and a smile for me.” He slapped me on the knee, told me to buckle up, and we were on our way.
Daddy Jim talked a lot going back, about how much he liked the sun catcher I painted for him that said, “Granddads are Special.” But when I told him that I thought the walkie-talkies were the greatest and could we go out in the pasture and play with them when we got back, he said he’d be watching the second half of the game. I tried not to be too disappointed.
After that I started noticing the smell again. But it was stronger this time. “Daddy Jim?” I said, “It smells like maybe something’s burnin’.”
“I don’t smell anything,” he said, but sniffed the air anyway.
He drove on, but I squirmed down into my seat and stared out the window at the trees.
Suddenly, the truck lurched. I grabbed the dashboard. Looking ahead of me, I saw smoke billowing out of the sides of the truck. “Daddy Jim!” I cried.
“I see it! I see it! Truck’s on fire!” He turned the wheel hard and stopped with a jerk, yelling, “Get out of the truck, baby! Get out!”
I started crying and fumbling with the door handle but in my panic couldn’t open the door. “Daddy Jim! Daddy Jim! I can’t get it open.” Then, the door was open and my grandfather was pulling me from the truck. He was breathing hard, and when I looked in his face, it was white.
“You okay?” He asked, pushing back my hair from my face. “You all right?” He carried me away from the truck.
I couldn’t speak so I nodded, then looked back at the car. The smoke was just barely curling up through the sides of the hood now. I saw something moving and tried to get closer. Daddy Jim pulled me back. “No, baby, we got to stay away.”
“But there’s something moving. See?” I pointed at the truck. The smoke had lessened now, and we crept closer to the vehicle.
Daddy Jim stopped suddenly and peered close to the truck. Then, he laughed out loud. “Well, I’ll be,” he said, “The wee beasties.” Then, he sniffed the air. “Smell that, honey.”
“Uh, huh,” I said, sniffing the air too. “I do. It’s what I smelled before. Smells like when Daddy burns leaves.”
“That’s right. Look now!” He pointed to the truck. “There’s another one.”
“Another one what?” I asked, trying to follow his finger as it pointed. Then I saw it, a little brown body against the rusted silver truck, scrambling for its life. Climbing down the tires now, it dropped onto the green grass and headed for the pines. “It’s a mouse!” I squealed with delight.
Daddy Jim chuckled. “I know what was burning. Leaves. Those mice made themselves a nice little home in that old truck they did. Made a bed of leaves.”
I shook my head. “What silly mice!”
“I don’t know,” Daddy Jim said, “I guess it was right smart. Till I started up the old truck to get horse feed.” He kneeled beside me, putting an arm around me. “The best laid plans of mice and men…” His voice trailed off. He just stared at the smoldering truck as his breath, his heart, slowed.
“But why did it take them so long, I wonder. Why didn’t they run out right away?”
I looked up at Daddy Jim, the color coming back in his face. “Maybe they were just scared,” I said.
Daddy Jim nodded. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe.” He got back up, slowly, holding a hand to his side. “All I know is it’s a miracle they survived. Don’t see how they could have, but they did, didn’t they?”
“They sure did,” I said giggling, and Daddy Jim just laughed.
He looked back at the truck. “Looks like it’s gone totally out now. Let’s take a look.”
“Be careful,” I said, sounding like Mom.
“I will. It was just those leaves burning, but it gave me a start. Enough to get the blood pumping that’s for sure.”
“Uh huh,” I said, feeling my own heart still thumping wildly against my chest.
He went around the truck; I covered my ears and ducked my head. “Be careful,” I whispered so he couldn’t hear. “Be careful.” I heard him pop the hood and looked up to watch him walk around to it. The smoke had stopped now. I took my hands from my ears. Daddy Jim’s head disappeared under the hood.
“Yep, yep. It was those mice all right. Bunch of leaves caught on fire. That’s all.” He looked down around him on the ground and moved to pick up a long, sturdy stick. Then, he came back and using the stick, removed the remaining leaves. “That ought to do it. Bye, bye, Mickey.”
“Daddy Jim,” I said, my hands on my hips. “Poor little mice, losing their home on the day after Christmas.”
“At least they didn’t lose their lives,” he said and climbed into the truck. “And I still got my truck.” He gestured for me to follow.
“Is it safe?” I wasn’t too sure I wanted to climb into an old truck that was just on fire.
He leaned over and opened the door. “It’s safe. Don’t you trust me?” Then, he smiled. I still hesitated. “When we get home, maybe we could take those walkie-talkies out in the pasture after all. We can plan our mission on the way back.”
“Yeah!” I said, thinking of the adventures ahead and climbing into the truck. The smoky, moldy smell greeted me. “It smells worse than ever,” I said, holding my nose and waving my hand in front of my face
“I know,” Daddy Jim said, “I know.” He took a deep breath of the smoky air and cranked the engine. It started up without a sputter. “But she still runs smooth, don’t she?