By Jennifer Brown
I suspected Fred was lying to me. I saw him passing through the store like a phantom, behind the racks of wolf t-shirts and car chargers, and then he vanished, having either gone upstairs to the trucker’s lounge or into the dimly lit Huddle House restaurant. Fred had told me he would be leaving for Omaha, but he was still there, at the Flying J truck stop in Frystown, Pennsylvania.
Fred has the face of a sailor, like Popeye. His skin is pitted and rough, but his medium size, and slightly hunched back makes him more approachable. It is easy to envision him tossing fish into crates or gutting a big wet salmon upon his knee. But he’s not a fisherman or a sailor. He’s been an OTR Owner-Operator truck driver for the past 33 years. Or so he said.
A couple days earlier, I first approached Fred on my lunch break. He was sitting on a bench next to the back entrance, where the Huddle House employees often stand and smoke cigarettes. He barely let me finish explaining that I’m a cashier, but also a college student who needed to interview someone for a school assignment, when he blurted out, “You can interview me.”
He was leaning back, watching the sun go down into the horizon past the Big G Express and Conway trucks parked at Idle Air. He wore a navy blue t-shirt, well-fitted jeans, and white generic-brand sneakers. A baseball cap cast a shadow over his eyes, and his gray hair stuck out the back like broom bristles. I wanted to examine the logo on his
hat more closely, but didn’t yet have the courage. I noticed that there wasn’t a mark of dirt or motor oil on Fred, unlike other truck drivers.
“How ya doin’?” he said to everyone who passed by him and made eye contact.
I first asked Fred how he felt about being a truck driver.
“I hate it,” he said, as he continued to watch the trucks sail by like ships.
Fred told me he holds an M.A. in education.
“You’re gonna laugh,” he said. “I graduated from Boston College.”
After college, Fred said he taught physical education at Public School 38 in Queens, New York, where he grew up. It was 1968 and teachers only made $7,800 a year. So Fred decided to get his CDL and make the “big bucks.”
“My parents were ready to kill me,” he said.
He crossed his legs, and leaned towards me. He asked a cocky looking man in a backwards hat for a cigarette, and the man thought for a moment with a frown, and then handed him a smoke. With a grin and a Pall Mall 100 crunched between his toothless gums, Fred talked about the time he ate breakfast with Jennifer Lopez at a place in the Bronx, called Maglio’s.
“I asked if she wanted to go for a ride in my truck, but she said she already had a boyfriend,” Fred said. He moved to the edge of the bench and hung his head.
“It’s a very, very lonely job. All you do is smoke, drink coffee, and listen to the radio. It’s exciting and new, the first year, but then it gets old.”
He has two kids, 33-year-old twins named Jason and Jaime, who live in California and Ohio. He was sad to say that he often missed his kids’ sporting events when he was
on the road. His wife, who only went with him once because she couldn’t handle the need to be driving constantly, passed away nine years ago.
“She was a good lady,” he said as smoke poured out of his mouth.
He told me he had been working on finding another woman, but hasn’t had any luck.
A week after my first encounter with Fred, I ran into him on my way from the employee break room. He seemed to be standing in the center of the store, with no purpose. He was wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt and his face was covered with gray stubble. He asked me what grade I got on my paper, and I told him that I wasn’t sure yet.
“You’ll get an A,” he said. “And if not, I’ll smack your teacher around,” and with that he swept his hands across each other with a smacking sound.
The next evening, a Friday night, I got called into work. Again, I saw Fred, and I couldn’t help but to wonder – if he was telling the truth at all about anything I asked him, when did he actually work?
During my lunch break, Fred and I sat at a small table in front of Subway, surrounded by the perpetual sent of thawed-out lettuce and tomato. A chunky toddler laughed and ran in circles near our feet, and truckers as diverse as a wagon of squashes passed by as Fred greeted each one with a “How ya doin’?”
I knew I had to find out the truth about his trucking career, but I feared the mutual embarrassment if I caught him in a lie. I tried to ease into the topic, and I asked him what kind of things he hauled.
He was turned sideways in his chair, facing the heart of the store rather than me, with his arm up over the back of the chair.
“Little bit of everything. Whatever they give you.”
“What was the last thing you hauled?” I ask.
“When and where was that?”
It took him a few moments to reply, and he folded his hands together as if he was praying, searching for the answer.
“Phoenix, Arizona,” he said. “The last week in September.”
I thought he had last gone to Omaha.
After a few moments of silence while I fiddled with my pen and struggled to think of a way to get Fred to be honest with me, he said, “Do you know what else I haul?”
I stopped chewing. “What’s that?”
He looked at me with his old blue eyes. “Prostitutes.”
I almost choked on my eggroll, and couldn’t help but to laugh. Then it seemed that I couldn’t stop laughing, I started to panic that I’d never stop, or that a piece of cabbage would lodge in my throat.
“Put that in there,” he continued, pointing a short finger at my notebook. “That’ll give you an A.”
He then told me that his favorite truck stop is in Dallas, where they have prostitutes that are midgets, but they have a hard time getting up in the truck. “You only have to pay half the price.”
He watched me, to see if I’d laugh. I laughed, but it sounded as forced as it felt, and I asked about his grown children, whom he only sees twice a year.
“I aggravate them, and then I leave.”
I finally asked him if his truck is in the lot, in hope that he’d invite me to take a look for the sake of my assignment. But he simply said that it is out there, and that was all. I told him that I’d like to see his truck, but that I didn’t want to be intrusive.
“I like that word,” he said. “Intrusive. That brought the college out of you.”
Later that night, Fred told me and the other cashier, that someone stole his PhilMor coffee mug, and I finally found the courage to look closely at his hat and I noticed that it said “High-Way Ministries” above a picture of a red truck with a cross on top of it. I asked him what it meant, and he told me that he supports drivers with problems — family problems, sex problems, prostitution problems.
Suddenly, it all clicked in my head – there is a Mobile Chapel permanently parked in the lot, near Idle Air. Fred said he is a “big christian,” that he is “very much into Christianity, ” and I had to think for a moment — is the Mobile Chapel Fred’s “truck”? Why did he lie to me all this time?
Before I could ask, Fred was gone. He returned about a half hour later with a brand new PhilMor mug in hand, claiming with a smile and heavy eyes, that the manager said he could have it. Seeing no other customers around, Fred used the opportunity to sing and dance in the empty space in front of the fuel desk. He leaned forward and snapped his fingers and bobbed his head while he sang, “I don’t remember what time it was…I don’t remember what day it was…” and he rocked back and forth to his a capella version of the song “More Today Than Yesterday.”
Something had caused Fred to dance in the middle of a truck stop as if he were in 1969, holding a joint in his hand instead of a plastic thermos. In that moment I watched him, not as if he were a trucker or a tall-tale-teller or an old lonely man, but as if he were
youth – pure, mischievous youth, and I was far from Omaha, far from Boston College, and far away from a cash register.