The idea of this story occured to me as a premise for a novel that I want to write. It’s about jeepney drivers in the Philippines. I’ve always been interested in this profession.
Rereading the story, I have to say I liked it :) The conversations were a bit long-winded but I don’t know, it struck a chord in me. Anyway here it is.
He shifted the gear down when he turned the curve and the jeepney engine grunted like some newly-fed farm pig. His passengers, university students mostly, bent down to pass through the aisle and get off the station and then then other students started to load into the jeep.
“Can I sit at the front?” a student asked. She looked in from the opening on the passenger’s side at the front. His son was seated beside him but there was still space for one.
“Can’t,” he said. “It’s taken.”
“There’s no more space at the back.”
“Just wait for the next jeep.”
“But I’m gonna be late. It’s the first day of class.”
“That’s your fault.”
“It’s fine with me, papa,” said the son. He scooted over toward his dad and then the student looked at the driver. He made a motioning gesture with his head and the passenger got in and sat beside his son. His son closed his legs and put his small hands on his knees. The passenger did not take up all the space on the seat and because of this her knee stuck out of the jeepney door. The driver shifted to first gear producing that porcine grunt again and then turned the steering wheel.
“Bayad po,” said a girl from behind. “For two.” She passed the payment each passenger in front of her taking it and passing it in turn and then the last placing it on the palm of the driver arm outstretched behind him while keeping his eyes on the road without the slightest change in driving.
“That professor is nuts,” the girl said. “Nuts but brilliant.”
“I, on the other hand, don’t care much for him.” It was a boy’s voice. The driver looked up at his passengers through the rearview mirror and saw that the boy was sitting across the girl. The other passengers were silent.
“Why?” the girl said.
“First impressions are always wrong.”
“You seen his ratings online? Everyone loves him.”
“Yeah? For what reasons?”
“They say you learn a lot from him. That his ideas are… I don’t know, profound. He gives a lot of readings, though.” She gesticulated with her hands as though delivering some Athenian discourse.
The boy rolled his eyes and grunted. “Oh boy. There’s still time to drop out of his class.”
“No but it’s worth it, they say. We get to study the important philosophers. Aquinas, Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard.”
“We’re engineers, sis.”
“But we are humans first.”
“So you’re a philosopher now, huh?” said the boy.
“I think we all can be. And should.”
“Fine,” said the boy. “I hope so.”
The driver smirked and then his eyes fell on his son beside him and noticed the stray threads on his uniform. Standard issue elementary school fare. He and his wife had bought it second hand from their neighbor and his wife days ago had spent the entire afternoon scrubbing it to get all the stains out. His eyes stopped at his son’s arms. Thin and frail. The ill-fitting uniform only serving to accentuate the puniness. Will he ever fit in enough to study here like those teenagers? Study philosophy, even?
His son noticed him looking. He looked up at the father the father looking back at those large eyes in return. Those same large eyes that could only stare unblinking as the lungs labored and wheezed as he bounced around in his frantic mother’s arms during an asthma attack, both husband and wife incapable of bringing him to a hospital and only capable of watching him in a taut silence. Praying for a free cure, another free pass yet again.
“Look at the road dad,” his son said.
He smiled. “I’m sorry.”
The son was quiet again and more laughter from the boy and the girl filled the jeepney.
He took another glance. “You’re quiet. You nervous?”
The son didn’t reply.
“Remember what we told you your mother and I,” he said.
“Smile and don’t be shy?”
“They’re not gonna like me.”
“Why do say that?”
“Cause I’m the jeepney driver’s son.”
It was the father’s turn to stay silent. He stopped at a station to let some passengers off. While waiting for other passengers to load he turned to his son.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“It’s true, isn’t it?”
“Don’t be smart with me boy. You haven’t even gone to school yet.”
“But it is true.”
“But I mean what makes you say you’re not gonna make friends because I’m a jeepney driver.”
“Yeah. They didn’t let me play in the league because they said I wouldn’t afford the jersey anyway.”
“Yeah. Basketball league. There was one in the court nearby.”
“Why didn’t you tell me.”
“I know you’d not want to spend.”
“Bayad po,” another voice said from behind. The driver took the bill from behind him and folded it lengthwise and then wrapped it around his fingers along with the other bills he had. He took change from the coin box and then passed it to the back. “Sukli,” he said. Without turning away from his driving he addressed his son again.
“How’d you know I wasn’t willing to spend.”
His son looed up at him with a frown. “Because you always say the same.”
“I have to think of my other siblings. That there are five other mouths to feed.”
“It’s true isn’t it?”
The son didn’t respond.
His son sighed. “Yes papa.”
After a while he took a glance at his son. “But you know thinking about it I think we can buy you that jersey. Just this once.”
“It’s done already papa. It was a summer league.”
There was a silence again. “Could I buy that new robot we saw at the store last Sunday?” his son asked. “Instead of the jersey I mean.”
“No. That’s different.”
The son sighed again.
“You study hard starting today and before you know it you won’t need to buy that robot. You’ll be smart enough to learn to build your own.”
His son looked up at him with those big eyes.
His son looked at the road before him but they now seemed to pierce through to some other dimension, suppositum of the visible, where the futures of men lay in potency like seeds enveloped in soil, invisible yet nonetheless kinetic.
“In fact, you’ll be able to be anything,” the father said. “You won’t have to be a jeepney driver.”
His son turned to him now. “What’s wrong with being a jeepney driver?”
He smiled. “You just told me a while ago you were ashamed of me being a driver.”
His son looked to the road. “I’m not ashamed of you, papa.”
He patted the back of his son’s head.
“I want to be a jeepney driver when I grow up.”
“Aw. Don’t say that now.”
“Because. You’ll want a better job.”
“You can be an architect.”
“Yeah. The one who builds buildings.”
“Oh. Well I can have two jobs.”
“That’s gonna get tiring.”
“But you did it too. Remember that time?”
He did. “Yeah but that was a special situation. Harder times. Your mother had just given birth to the fifth baby and she couldn’t do any work herself either so. I had to look for some extra cash. It’s not easy to feed so many mouths, you know.”
“I’m gonna have many children in the future too.”
He laughed. “Wait till you get older.”
“I mean it. I like big families.”
“Good luck with that kid. It’s a lot of work. But it’s worth it and I don’t regret a single one of you.” He tussled his son’s hair.
They reached the last station. The passengers at the back got down and the one at the front stayed behind. She was searching for coins in his pockets.
“Hey, sorry,” she said to the kid beside him. “I overheard it was your first day in school today.”
“Yeah, it is.”
The passenger looked at the driver and then smiled at him. She turned again to the kid. “Well, I have something for you.”
She took it out of her knapsack. “It’s an erasable pen.”
The kid’s eyes lit up. “Wow.”
“Say thanks,” said the driver.
“Thank you,” said the driver, nodding at the passenger.
“Hope you’ll find it useful,” said the passenger to the kid. “It’s not every day that one starts his first day at school.” She gave her payment to the jeepney driver. “Who knows, someday you’ll be studying with us here in the university.”
When the passenger had gotten down the driver removed all the signs from his windshield to show that he was no longer taking any passengers. He made for the route to the elementary school to drop off his son.
On the way they passed by the parish in the university campus. He saw it and then he made a quick glance at his son. “Someday,” he whispered. He sighed and then rubbed his hand on the rosary hanging from his windshield and then crossed himself.