Trainer of the Year
by Andrew Moody
My first job after college was as a long-haul truck driver. I wanted to be a writer, and I saw truck driving as my first step toward this goal. I was after the kinds of experiences that my peers, who were planning to work in offices or backpack around Europe, would remain oblivious to. However, I knew that writing wouldn’t pay the rent, and, to further complicate matters, I hadn’t actually written anything. Truck driving seemed like an ideal way to gather writing material and earn a living at the same time.
So, after three weeks of truck driving school, and with $21 in my pocket, I boarded a plane to Minneapolis. The company I’d signed on with, Moredom Transit, was sending me to their headquarters in Moredomenie, Wisconsin, for training. Driving school had given me a cursory introduction to the trade, but I’d really only gone there because it was the easiest way to get a commercial license. My real truck driving education would take place on the job, where I would have to spend several weeks under the supervision of a trainer.
I spent my first four days in Moredomenie at company orientation, sitting in a conference room with about twenty other fledgling drivers, listening to presentations on topics ranging from produce-load concerns to truck maintenance. We had to take several paper tests, a driving test, and a physical examination, and on the fourth day we graduated. We were then paired with our trainers based on a Meyers-Briggs personality test; my results had pegged me as “hard to figure out.” Although this bland analysis both left me suspicious of the test’s reliability and vindicated the bias I felt against such crude attempts to pigeonhole human beings, my more genuine, lasting grievance against the test is that it consigned me to five weeks in a truck with Gerardo Punchinello.
Gerardo was 40 and had receding, reddish brown hair, with a thick, matching mustache. He stood at average height and had a beer gut that, along with his lopsided gait, gave him a roly-poly aspect. His teeth were yellow and crooked, and one of the top middle ones was missing (I never asked what had become of it, but I never saw him brush his surviving teeth, either). He wore the typical trucker uniform of jeans, a baseball cap, and plaid shirts that often had patches advertising Moredom sewn onto the front pockets. He had worn-out, freckly skin and dull, graying eyes that brought to mind an aging retriever dog. We set out on our first delivery run the day after we’d met, carrying a load of frozen food that needed to be in Indiana the next morning. I drove all night; Gerardo sat in the passenger seat, critiquing my driving and telling me about himself.
Gerardo was a mysterious man. He had an official story: originally from California, he’d served in the Military Police, worked as a security officer, and been ordained as a Pentecostal minister; he’d been driving a truck for the past four years. Yet other biographical details would eventually surface, calling into question the veracity of this seemingly straightforward history (the Pentecostal thing probably should have raised an eyebrow, except that I didn’t know what a “Pentecostal” was). He claimed to have been a teenage punk rocker, dying his hair green and smoking “a bag of grass a day.” He claimed he’d had a drinking problem, having at his worst drunk “two to three cases a day” -- although there were several times when he and I shared a casual beer or two, without his having any trouble stopping. One time he claimed he’d formerly managed a pancake restaurant. Another time he casually referred to a former stint as a salesman, claiming that he’d even sold one house “on a cold call.” Although he never drank coffee, and lightly mocked my habit of ordering it with every meal, he once claimed that, during his tenure as a night security guard, he’d regularly consumed “seven pots a night.” These stories had all taken place when he was my age, and although it’s not impossible for all of those things to happen during a person’s early adulthood, in Gerardo’s case I had my doubts.
But it would take some time in his company before I would grow suspicious of his stories, inspecting every detail for flaws and inconsistencies. Unluckily for me, there would be no shortage of time in his company. Not even my bleakest imagined scenarios of the training period had prepared me for the far bleaker reality: during my five weeks of training, the only times we were not together would be when we were showering or sleeping. In the latter case, we would only have a few feet and a flimsy bunk bed separating us. We ate every meal together, most of them at truck stops, where the servers usually asked whether we wanted separate checks. Every time we were asked this question, Gerardo had the same response: “Buy one get one free?” The servers’ responses to this joke -- one of his favorites -- varied along a narrow spectrum of annoyance.
He prided himself on his humor, especially his unconvincing impressions of celebrities and public figures. He loved doing these impressions for people we’d just met; a few times he even did them over the CB, for the dubious benefit of anyone nearby who was tuned into our channel. His favorite impression was of the comedian Bobcat Goldthwait (whom he called Bobcat “Blueberg”); it went, “Hi, I’m Bob. What’s your name?” in a throaty, high-pitched half-scream. He would say this whenever we climbed into the truck, whenever he returned to the front of the cab from the sleeper berth in back, or whenever we sat down anywhere to eat. He also had a Bill Clinton impression, which sounded just like his Elvis Presley impression, except that instead of saying, “Thank you, thank you very much,” he would say, “It wasn’t sex -- it was creative vacuum cleaning.”
I’d begun the training period wanting to get along with Gerardo, but by the end of the first week I was already sick of him. And the mounting personal tension between us was further aggravated by my inadequacies as a truck driver, and his inadequacies as a truck driving teacher. Driving a semi-truck is hard, frustrating work, and three weeks of driving school hadn’t cut it for me. To make matters worse, I lacked much relevant driving experience -- before driving school, I’d never driven stick, nor had I ever never driven anything bigger than a Jeep, or anything with a trailer.
Backing presented the most formidable challenge, because it required several new skills -- working a clutch, relying entirely on mirrors, and maneuvering a trailer that often went in the direction opposite the one in which I’d turned the steering wheel -- all at the same time. Although Gerardo had initially pitched himself as an uncommonly wise and patient man (“you’ll learn from me, and I’ll learn from you” he’d said our first night out together), within a few days I’d seen the limits of his patience. Twice while backing during that first week, I’d hesitated out of fear of hitting something; both times he’d motioned me on, resulting in minor scrapes with the sides of buildings.
The second time this happened, our bumper was scratched badly enough that Gerardo decided to file a company accident report. “We’ll tell them you’re a new driver and you got nervous and slipped off the clutch -- which you did, right?” he said. The implicit suggestion was that nothing had been wrong with his instruction -- that the mistake had been due to my inexperience and my failure to follow his lead. Although this version of events wasn’t technically true, his inflection was intimidating enough to discourage me from contradicting him. I filled out the accident report as he’d suggested, keeping my own version, and my growing resentment, to myself. However, Gerardo was not completely oblivious to the tensions between us -- unfortunately, he chose one of the worst possible ways of attempting to resolve these tensions.
One night, after a long day spent carrying a load of beer across Pennsylvania, we parked at a truck stop in northeast Ohio. As I was about to climb into the my bunk for the night, he stopped me. “Sit down,” he said.
Sitting next to me on the edge of his mattress, he started rubbing the back of my neck. Although this made me uneasy, I didn’t want to offend him by jumping to any unwarranted conclusions -- maybe he was trying to relieve the kink in my neck I’d complained of earlier in the day, I told myself. Maybe he was initiating some kind of trust activity. “Lay down on your stomach,” he said, a minute later. Still uneasy, I followed his command. Another minute, and I soon regretted my earlier hesitations about offending him. This was no trust activity -- he was trying to get into my pants. I pulled away, sat up, and said, “I’m going to bed now.”
“You mean you don’t want me to?” he asked sensitively, wiggling his right hand obscenely.
I shook my head, and made a motion toward my own bunk. “Sit down a minute,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”
“I swung bi when I was your age,” he said, “and you’ve been giving me signs all week that you were the same way, and that you were interested in me.”
I look at him in stunned silence, wondering what he might have taken as signs of my alleged attraction to men, and, even more puzzlingly, to him.
“I thought this would be a way we could bond,” he went on, with tears in his eyes. “I like you,” he said. “You’re a sweet boy.”
As firmly as I could, I told him I had no interest in him, and asked him to promise never to try anything similar again. But before he would let me back up to my bunk, for a long night of unpleasant dreams, he had one more request: “Can I have a hug?”
Gerardo was standing in front of my bunk when I woke up the next morning. “I’m so sorry about last night,” he said with a pathetic look in his eye.
“It’s okay,” I said coldly.
“God talked to me last night. He said what I did was wrong.” Apparently he’d needed a religious epiphany to see the wrongness of making a sexual advance towards a young, vulnerable subordinate. I didn’t want to talk about it; I just wanted him not to do it again.
The main consequence of Gerardo’s indiscretion was that I stopped trying to like him. A day or two later, at a beer warehouse outside Cleveland, he strained his back while making a manual adjustment to the trailer. I witnessed the whole thing, and took a private satisfaction in seeing him limp away in visible pain. Because of this back injury, and because, after a week of constant driving, I’d grown more adept behind the wheel, he started lying down in the back of the cab as I would drive. I still hadn’t mastered backing or shifting, but I had become a competent “steering wheel holder” (a driver who can handle a big truck on interstates, but who panics upon encountering busy city intersections or loading docks). I relished these moments when Gerardo would leave me alone at the wheel, even after I’d learned that they weren’t as private as I’d imagined -- one afternoon, returning from the sleeper berth, he said, “You’re doing real good. You don’t know it, but I’ve been watching you through the curtain, to see how you drive when you think I’m not watching.” As unpleasant as this sounds, I still preferred it to his earlier, more hands-on persona.
As my days in Gerardo’s company wore on, I looked hopefully toward California, where he was planning some time off. It was Moredom’s policy to put the trainee up in a motel whenever the trainer requested home time, and I looked forward to the time away from him. But, as before, I had underestimated Gerardo. “I told them you’d come home with me,” he said, the day before we reached California. “No sense putting you up in a motel when you can come home and meet my brother Rudy and my dogs.”
I did not want to go home with Gerardo, and the prospect of meeting his brother and their dogs did little to sway me. However, I was also afraid of offending him, so I kept my disappointment to myself, and agreed to accompany him home. But before we could go to Fresno, where Gerardo and Rudy shared a house, we first had to pay a visit to a Bakersfield RV park, to see Layla.
He’d told me before about Layla -- she was the first woman he’d been “seriously attracted to in a long time” (whether this “long time” had included the previous week, when he’d made his pass at me, would remain unspecified). He’d been calling her almost daily from truck stops and warehouses, often leaving her long messages on his own voicemail; he’d given her his own password so that she could dial up, log in as him, and listen to them. She was the ex-girlfriend of his most recent ex-trainee, so they couldn’t have known each other for long.
We met her at a dusty Bakersfield truck stop. Gerardo asked me to wait in the cab when she first arrived, so I watched from above when she got out of her battered station wagon and locked into a long, gushy hug with Gerardo. When they’d finished hugging, Gerardo motioned for me to join them. “Andrew, this is Layla,” he said (he always called me “Andrew” rather than “Andy,” something rare among people outside of my family). Layla was short and squat, with freckled, leathery skin. She was wearing a T-shirt and what looked like maternity overalls. She was a year older than me. I said it was nice to meet her and held out my hand, which she shook limply without bothering to reciprocate my lie. Then we climbed into her aging station wagon, with Gerardo in the passenger seat and me in the back next to Mikey, her year-old son. Layla screeched the car into gear and drove us to the RV park where she lived.
“You know you can do laundry here when you’re on the road,” Layla told me as we walked from her car to her trailer.
“Really?” I said, trying to sound impressed.
“Yeah they got truck parking and a bathroom where you can shit, shave and shower,” she said. “It’s better than having to pay at a truck stop.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“The dryers suck, though,” she added. “Takes like three cycles to dry a pair of jeans.”
“Oh I hate that,” I mumbled as Layla, ignoring my feeble attempt to connect, led us inside.
Layla’s trailer had two bedrooms, separated by a living room and a kitchen. The carpets had the dull, brownish color of undigested food, and the wood-paneled walls were decorated in a faux-Native American motif. We spent most of the afternoon in front of the TV, with Layla cuddling up to Gerardo and attempting to entertain us with stories from her past as a “lot lizard” (a truck stop prostitute), plus the occasional racist joke (she was the only one of us who laughed at these jokes, in a cackling snort that underscored her already piglike appearance). Eventually Layla decided we should watch an adult video together; a minute later, as she fussed with the mess of wires connecting her television set to the camcorder she used as a VCR, she mentioned that the video had been a gift from Gerardo’s brother.
When had she met Gerardo’s brother? I wondered. How long had they known each other? Was it long enough -- based on what I knew, it didn’t seem possible -- for such a gift to seem appropriate?
I would never find out, nor, to my relief, would I have to watch a porn with them. The closest we would come would be a snowy screen and a properly functioning audio track of orgasmic feminine shrieks, before Layla would give up and move on to her next bad idea.
Reclaiming her spot next to Gerardo, she picked up the phone and started dialing.
“Rudy,” she said, “Guess who’s here?”
Apparently, along with receiving porn tapes from him, she was in the habit of calling Gerardo’s brother, enough of a habit that she didn’t have to look up his number before dialing, or identify herself when he answered. She crunched up her face as she listened to Rudy, whose voice I could hear from across the living room as a series of angry, incomprehensible squawks. Then she handed the phone to Gerardo. “He wants to talk to you,” she said.
Gerardo took the phone and sat with a pained expression on his face, giving terse answers in the manner of a son answering to an irate mother.
“Darn it!” said Gerardo a minute later. “He hung up!”
Rudy was upset with Gerardo for not going to see him first, which in turn left Gerardo dejected. “I have to talk to him,” he said a few minutes later. “Alone.”
Layla and I went to the grocery store, and when we returned Gerardo was standing in front of the trailer, with his hands in his pockets and the same sad look on his face. “I told him we’d be there as soon as we could,” he said, distantly. “Andrew, why don’t you stay out here a minute and watch the baby.”
He and Layla went inside, and I remained outside and leaned against Layla’s station wagon, where Mikey was still strapped into his car seat from our trip to the store. As relieved as I ought to have been at finally having a break from these creepy people, now I suddenly wanted to know what was going on. Still leaning against the station wagon, I shifted my stance so that I could see through the trailer window into the living room, where Gerardo and Layla had locked into another of their long, silent hugs. Gerardo’s eyes rose slowly towards mine, but before he could catch me spying, I’d gone back to watching the baby.
An hour later, we were driving deadhead (pulling an empty trailer) toward Fresno.
“So what’d you think of Layla?” Gerardo asked.
“She was nice,” I said, not knowing what else I could say, even as a lie. “She said she was interested in you” (she had told me this during our drive to the grocery store).
“She was interested in you, too,” he said. “In fact I don’t know if you noticed, but she was giving signs the whole time that she was interested in having a threesome with us.”
As usual, I didn’t know what to say. The only interest I’d felt from Layla was when she’d wanted to know what Gerardo had said about her. Otherwise (her wanting to watch a porn together notwithstanding), she’d spent most of the time making me feel unwelcome. And although I may have been oblivious to her real desires, it seemed unlikely that Gerardo would ever be the one to set me straight -- after all, he’d previously claimed to have received similar signals from me.
“Hey by the way I’m sorry about my brother,” he said a minute later. “You’ll like him, he’s just a little crazy.”
But Rudy didn’t seem crazy when I met him, nor did he look anything like Gerardo. He had a salt-and-pepper mullet cut and a droopy mustache, and he greeted Gerardo by a pet name I hadn’t heard before. Between his appearance and his manner of speaking, he brought to mind Donald Sutherland playing a gay cowboy. Their house was a small ranch with floral patterns stenciled on the upper borders of the living room walls, and several ill-behaved dogs running around constantly. Once we were inside, Rudy and Gerardo went into another room for a private talk, leaving me in the living room with the dogs.
That night, after dinner, Rudy invited me to join him and Gerardo in their backyard hot tub. I declined the offer and spent the next hour in their guest room, writing down as many observations about Gerardo as I could. It was the first chance I’d had since starting my truck driving adventure -- the main point of which had been to gather writing material -- to actually sit down and write. This improved my mood enough that, when Gerardo later poked his head through the door to say, “You missed out -- that tub felt great!” I could barely muster the energy to be repulsed.
The next day we visited the driving school Gerardo had attended, and I met his mentor, Papa John. Papa John, a former tanker driver, was a born-again cancer survivor who claimed he’d been healed by a laying-on-hands ritual, in which Gerardo had participated. We were visiting so that Gerardo could encourage the school’s current students to apply for jobs at Moredom, which paid a generous recruiting bonus. He gushed about how great a company Moredom was to drive for; most of the students’ questions pertained to whether Moredom would hire former felons. He encouraged them to “put your faith in the good lord.” As we drove away from the school, Gerardo quipped, “Nice idea, letting the state pay so former convicts and drug addicts can get jobs as truck drivers.” I didn’t ask him to elaborate, but I did assume that such was the school’s mission -- what, then, had led Gerardo there? I would never find out.
On our last morning in Fresno Rudy did our laundry, separating my colors and pressing my T-shirts with a diligence that would have embarrassed my mother. Then he gave us a ride to the truck stop where we’d parked our vehicle. I thanked Rudy for his hospitality and climbed up into the truck. Gerardo remained on the ground for a few more minutes with Rudy. They shared a long hug, similar to the ones he’d shared with Layla, before we could head for our next job, at a local brandy distillery, where we’d been dispatched to pick up a load of grape juice concentrate bound for Cincinnati.
I spent several more weeks with Gerardo following our Fresno visit, and he didn’t get any easier to live with. One night he got on the CB and, in a mock-effeminate voice, announced himself as “Mr. Pink Panties.” Another night, at a processed meat warehouse in Madison, Wisconsin, I was up late reading in the front of the cab, when Gerardo popped his head through the curtain. “Whatcha doing? he asked.
“I can’t sleep,” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“Did you try --” he started, finishing the question with his hand, which was stroking an imaginary penis.
“Ah, no,” I said, more taken aback than I probably should have been by that point.
“Want me to do it for you?” he asked.
About a week after I’d declined his offer at the meat warehouse, Gerardo decided that he was ready for another vacation, and that I was ready for my own truck. He’d often said, “You know, I like you. I think I’ll just tell them you’re not ready for your own truck. Maybe we can tell them we liked each other so much, we decided to get married.” Coming from someone else, I might have taken this as a harmless, if unfunny, joke. But coming from him, it sounded anything but harmless. So, when he made the pleasantly surprising admission that I was ready for “first seat” -- despite my continuing difficulties with shifting, backing, and basic control over the truck -- I felt overcome with relief.
However, before he would finally let me go, he wanted one last favor. “My goal for this year,” he’d often said, “is to be Trainer of the Year.” Trainer of the Year, a distinction Moredom conferred based on trainees’ evaluations, included a shiny custom jacket, a cash bonus, and the trainer’s picture on the wall at Moredom headquarters. Gerardo took this distinction very seriously; when the time came for me to fill out my evaluation, he wanted to read it before I handed it in. Still afraid, for some reason, of hurting his feelings, I gave him the lavishly corny evaluation he wanted, conveniently omitting any references to his shortcomings as a trainer and as a human being.
“Well that’s a real nice evaluation, Andrew,” he said after I’d read it aloud to him. “I think you’ll be a great writer, if you can write an evaluation as nice as that.” I should have disregarded this compliment, considering that it had come from him. But because I wanted to believe it -- that I would be a great writer -- I accepted it at face value. Temporarily setting aside my ill will towards him, I gave him one last hug.
Gerardo’s request to review my evaluation confirmed everything I’d come to suspect about him: he was a crude, opportunistic, dishonest man, but mostly he just wanted to be liked. And although a part of me regrets my spinelessness -- he got off with grossly unethical conduct, and, even worse, with the final impression that I did not despise him -- a part of me also takes pleasure in pondering the ramifications of what soon followed: a few weeks after being given my own truck, I got lost on a country road in Kentucky and nearly drove over the side of a one-lane bridge, rupturing a fuel tank and causing the diesel spill that led to my termination from the ranks of Moredom Transit. And although this final fiasco meant a premature end to my truck driving career, it also had at least one positive effect -- after a fiasco like that, my former trainer could not possibly hope to be Trainer of the Year.