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Wham!

by Jeff Napier

Wham! My truck was just sitting at a red light, waiting to turn left. A drunken fool careened around the corner at a high rate of speed. Watching in horror, there was nothing I could do. He hit the bumper of my truck, spun around, and hit a parked car. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but that wrecked my lifelong plan.

Coming from the wrong side of the tracks and raised by a single mother, poverty was no stranger. Not only that, but my grandparents never had any money. I was going to break the cycle. In my last years of high school, I looked around for a job. What could a black girl without the means of a college education do? Because of details in my mother’s past and her remarkably low credit score, a student loan was not possible.

I could become a hairdresser but that really wasn’t my thing. How about a massage practitioner? Maybe get a job at a hotel? No, not for me. One day it occurred to me that driving a truck might be nice.

That was it! That was something I could do and it would get me out of the projects. For those who don’t know, that’s the ghetto, the worst of the ghetto. I’d wanted to get way out. Like, what if I could get one of those jobs where I’m driving all over the country? How cool is that?

But there was a roadblock. Truck driving school. There was no money. Practically in tears for days, it hadn’t occurred to me that one didn’t have to start out with a big truck. What about driving for Uber? No, that wouldn’t work because I didn’t have a car. Maybe driving a delivery van for Amazon? Maybe after doing some sort of delivery work for a while, I would have the money to go to trucking school.

It turned out that getting a job with Amazon was ridiculously easy. It paid really well too, or at least for a girl like me, allowing me to start saving for driving school. It took me nearly a year, since my brother stole my savings for his drug habit about six months in.

Let me tell you, hopping in and out of a truck fifty times a day with packages is strenuous work. And people with their dogs. Some people just don’t control them! I still have a little scar on my thigh. But it was a job, and it fit a plan. I stuck with it.

Well, eventually I did learn to drive a big truck. My first real trucking job was a ten-wheeler dump truck. Even though it was just back and forth from a quarry to construction sites, it made me happy, and it was making good money.

In time, my dream job came along, commanding an 18-wheeler. I just loved double-clutching and floating the gears with that 13-speed Spicer transmission. Sitting high up over all the other traffic was a delight. And, what a kick, traveling in these United States of ours. The windshield was like a peaceful, never-ending movie. Even the rattly, throaty sounds of a big diesel engine was enjoyable. I was in heaven.

Until that drunk bent my bumper. You’d think that would be a minor thing, but here’s what happened. The company fired me instantly. It seems if you’ve been in an accident that involves two or more other vehicles, that’s their policy. It didn’t matter that the truck was completely stopped, the drunk hit me, then smashed into a parked car.

Worse, a couple of minutes after the crash, a cop showed up on the scene and gave me a ticket. Yes, a ticket for forgetting to turn on my emergency flashers. Can you believe it? OK, so the police officer was white, and I’m black. Well, I don’t want to think about that.

So, guess what? You can’t get hired as a trucker with a recent violation.

Days of unemployment turned into weeks and then into months. All the beautiful money in my savings account was gone. I had been so proud of the used Toyota Camry I recently purchased. but had to sell it. Sure, it was ten years old, but it was MY car!

My addict brother came through for me for once, and gave me some money for groceries. Then, he tried to convince me I could make some money by selling drugs. Yeah, right, like I’d ever do that. I’d rather literally die of poverty.

A food stamps application was in process. The rent was overdue so next was going to be moving back in with Mom. And here I thought I could get out of the projects. Well, the joke was on me and I started crying once again.

Checking the Internet daily for driving jobs, at that point, anything would do. Even if I could get the Amazon job back, that would have been a big relief.

On the worst day of my life, when it seemed every door had closed, I came across a funny little ad on Craigslist. Some guy wanted someone who was familiar with driving big vehicles, but could also cook and do ‘light domestic chores.’ Weird, eh?

In fact it was kind of spooky. What was up with that? Maybe it was about driving a truck full of household or kitchen product samples, and demonstrating them. I didn’t even want to think of other possibilities. If things had been different, I’d never answer such an ad.

The guy wrote back. Once he told me the details, I felt sick to my stomach. This guys was definitely a creep.

He said he had purchased a big diesel motorhome because he was some sort of pickleball player, whatever that was. He said he drove his motorhome once, immediately tore off the air horn under a low-hanging branch and that driving it scared him. He wanted someone to drive it so he could go to pickleball events all over the country. He wanted the driver to make him meals, keep the motorhome clean, wash his clothes, and so on. Sort of a rolling butler.

Yeah, so what else did he want? This was horrible. But at that point, any job was better than no job. So, I took the bus and walked a mile to his place in the hot afternoon sun for an interview.

There was fear about going into his house, but what could I do? I was thinking once I was inside, he could do anything. It was a big house, out in the Brighton neighborhood. He obviously had a dollar or two.

For a white guy, he was pretty good-looking. He did have a nice smile. Sparkly eyes, too. When emailing with him, it seemed like he might be some 50-year-old masher, but no, he was only one year older than me.

Well, we got to talking, and it wasn’t horrible. In fact, we talked over an hour, and I was actually starting to believe this guy could be OK. We walked back behind his house, and there was his motorhome. It was a big, tall, 40-foot long, shiny diesel beauty built on a Freightliner chassis. It was no tractor-trailer but I wouldn’t mind driving that thing, even if it did have an automatic transmission.

He told me a little about this pickleball stuff. He said it was like a cross between ping-pong and tennis. It didn’t sound very interesting to me, but you know how people are. They take an interest in something like tropical fish or rollerblading and they become obsessed.

As evening was approaching we worked out that I’d drive just him once, to a pickleball tournament near Chicago, a three-day trip starting two days from then. After making it clear that there was to be no funny business, I foolishly believed that he would be a gentleman. Maybe it’s because I needed the job so badly. Still, all I was promising was this one drive to Chicago.

I had to catch the last bus home. He got a funny look on his face, like, he understood my situation even though I hadn’t really told him the details. He said, “Why don’t you drive the motorhome to your place then bring it back the day after tomorrow?”

“Oh, I couldn’t.”

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his wallet. Thinking he was going to give me his business card or something, he handed me four $100 bills. “Here, take the motorhome, get yourself a nice meal, then fill it with organic groceries tomorrow. Oh, and keep the change.”

We were standing in the motorhome at the time. Something went wrong. My eyes filled with tears, my knees felt weak, causing me to slump down onto a sofa, crying my eyes out. He sat next to me, tentatively put one arm around me and patiently waited until I could speak.

“I know, I know,” is all he said.

We did go to Chicago. The drive was pleasant. He sat in the passenger seat most of the time. We talked, but it was all pleasant surface stuff. Nothing deep. I was supposed to be doing his domestic chores, but on that drive, he made me sandwiches and seemed attentive to my every need. He did spend way too much time explaining pickleball to me. I didn’t get it. Why would anyone want to play something that was like tennis, but it wasn’t tennis?

On the way, we stopped at RV campgrounds. I had never done anything like that before, having to learn about hooking up the electricity, water hose, and all that. Oh, you should have seen the mess I made while disconnecting the sewer hose the next morning.

What about sleeping arrangements, you ask? True to his word, Jimmy was a real gentleman. He had a bedroom in the back of the rig. It had a full queen-size bed. He showed me how a sofa pulls out in the front, handed me some sheets, blankets and pillows out of a cabinet, then went into his back bedroom and closed the door.

When we arrived at the tournament, he introduced me to a bunch of other pickleball players as his driver. If any of them raised eyebrows, I didn’t see it. I returned to the motorhome and tidied up while he got ready for his first game.

Coming back out to watch, I didn’t really understand the game. It had a weird scoring system with three parts like “four-seven-two.” He and a partner lost badly, that much was clear. It didn’t seem to phase him, he was smiling as much after the game as before. He was likeable, but he was a weirdo.

That job lasted well over a year, until things changed which you’ll find out about in a minute. He found tournaments from east coast to west, although mostly sticking to Southern California that winter. Even though he wasn’t a very good player, he was so affable. Everyone loved Jim.

Details slowly became clear. It seems Jim had gone to college for software engineering. While still a student he built a small, social media website competing in a minor way with the likes of Facebook and Twitter. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, Meta, the company that includes Facebook, bought his little website for many millions of dollars. He retired at age 22. Except he didn’t really retire. He kind of brokers websites by other developers, and somehow continues to make more money.

In time, Jimmy got me out on a pickleball court. I was terrible at it, literally swinging and entirely missing the ball a few times. At one point I fell and scraped a knee. But we and a couple of other players were laughing, and carrying on, and having a good time. Pickleball wasn’t awful. In fact it was kind of fun, and wouldn’t you know, I started playing it regularly?

I became Jimmy’s doubles partner. Truth be told, I’m better at it than he is. He doesn’t seem to mind one bit. Among our many tournaments around the country, Jimmy also visited with coaches, and he became a better player, but still, he doesn’t have what you might call natural ability. But mostly, we play. We play just recreational games with other people, but also at the tournaments. We seldom win, but we always have fun.

I still love driving. He and will sit up in the front of the motorhome just discussing anything and everything as the miles roll by. We’ll see mountains and fields, ponds and rivers, people here, and people there. When we get to our destinations, we’ll go to museums and tourist attractions. We’ll visit with pickleball players in their homes. It’s a wonderful life.

Now, I love pickleball as much as Jim does.

And, I love Jim as much as pickleball. More. We innocently kissed a few times during the past couple of months, and last Friday, that kissing really turned into something. For the first time, I slept in the bed in the back of the motorhome, not on the pull-out sofa.

Recent news:

We were married in February. We’ve been discussing the possibility of raising children on the road in our motorhome.


Jimmy’s motorhome


The author’s motorhome

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