I’ve carried this thing around since my days as a piss-poor travelling salesman for a truck driving school.
What the hell?

–The Sales Pitch

The Toyota and I topped the iced mountain road as the valley spread before us in a yawn. Abandoned wooden warehouses were the first signs of a town. Further down, neon franchised lights broke up the gray of winter’s dusk. As we made our way, a wind came, pushing against the front of the car. The town, whose name I forget, lay comatose between a darkening mountain and a black, shallow river. Along the river ran railroad tracks, rusting in the cold air. The town gave me the feeling I had often when traveling through the southern hills of West Virginia; I am in the land of the desperate, the dying and the dead.

I was to visit one of the desperate and recruit them into truck driving school.
Slick, promising ads convinced them to call the 800 number for their new rewarding career as an Over-The-Road trucker. Answered with mock empathy, the call generated a lead sheet. The lead sheet was given to me and my ilk. We drove around Southwest Virginia and West Virginia enrolling potential truckers into school. For a mere six thousand dollars, we would take the desperate away from the dying and the dead and give them a glorious, financially stable future. How they come up with the money or the down payment (my commission) was immaterial. My trainer instructed me that what a candidate had to sacrifice to attend school was none of my business.

“Get in, throw the sales pitch and get that money. That’s it, in a nutshell.”

Three days before I arrived, I’d finally gotten the candidate, Brian, on the phone. He gave me stammered instruction on how to arrive at the Happy-Go-Lucky burger joint where the interview was to take place. Most candidates preferred to meet at a neutral, public place out of fear or embarrassment. I arrived twenty minutes early for the interview. I ordered their signature meal; a Lots of Luck deluxe meal. The restaurant was built in the Fifties with large angled plate-glass windows and wooden booths finished with vinyl, cold seat cushions. It appeared the place was about to close, even though it was not quite 7 pm on a Friday night. No one came in or visited the drive through. My ‘Lots of Luck’ hamburger was a gray meat by-product under warm mayonnaise, limp pickles, and dried up onions. My soda was noncarbonated syrup.

I glanced up from the soft, greasy fries as a couple entered. He was tall with a heavy coat over two or three shirts. His boots were scuffed and well-worn. Black jeans, stained brown here and there, were ill-fitting. His weathered face gazed at me from across the room as they headed my way. Shuffling next to him walked a woman; rather a girl bundled and rounded enough to be a Russian nesting doll.
She shadowed him completely.

The pale, teen-aged girl mopping the clean floor looked up and waved to the couple.
“Hey Brian.”
They sat and we exchanged greetings. I gave Brian my card and started the interview part of the sales pitch. His wife, Amanda, looked straight down. She seemed a tougher sell than Brian. Amanda stared out of the window once and then back to the table. While we talked, she reached out and grabbed Brian’s hand. Then pulled it back into her lap.
“Now, Brian where do you now work?”
“Nowheres.”
“What was the last job you held and what was the rate of pay?”
Amanda sighed and played with a curl of her dirty hair.
“Hush. I worked wit my ex-step-Uncle. Willie, over by 28 west. He got a construction compnee but his work done dried up so he had to let me go. I were mak’n somewhere near eight dollars an hour or so. Whas a trucka make? Buddy o’mine tote me he made right at twenty-five last year. Mean’n twenty-five thousand a year…”
I cleared my throat.
“Yes. A well-trained tractor-trailer operator, which is what you may become with our program, can make a minimum of, I mean, at least twenty-five thousand per year.”
I glanced at Amanda. Her eyes lifted to Brian. As she reached for his left hand, her eyes darted at me once.
She patted his hand.
“Now when did you last work, Brian?”
“Mmm, probably ‘bout six months or so ago.”
“Are you collecting unemployment at this time or any federal help at all?” I asked.
“Well, you know. We get help for the baby and all. E’rybody I knowed does that though.”
“How many children do you two have all together?”
Amanda spoke.
“Just the one I’ma curryin. We loss one lass year, but dis one is gonna make it fine.”
Her hand went back to her lap. Brian pulled his coat tight around his chest. Amanda sighed, again, and looked out the window. Craning his neck, Brian looked over towards the counter. I looked over the application. I sensed a thick glass come up between the two. They could see one another, but touching or closeness was forbidden.

“Oops, sorry” I laughed at myself. Trying to crack the glass. “I forgot one of the lines up top…address?”
“Fourteen et, oh, won Easide Drive, *****, Wes Virgin’yah”
“Fourteen eight zero one, Eastside Drive. Wait.” I looked at the reversed numbers above the smeared front door.
“No Brian. Sorry I meant. Not where we are now. I need to know where you live.”
“Here.” Brian looked at me with a mustered, proud strength only the desperately poor ever find.
“Here?” I said. “At the restaurant?”
“Here, at the restaurant. We actually stay in duh car outback. Da people here give us the old food ‘sted of toss’n it. It’s jes for a while ‘til I get outta da school we talk’n ‘bout.”

The reality invaded my mind; unemployed, ignorant, married with one dead kid in their hearts and one more in her stomach. I didn’t know what to say, how to act. How? What? This is what the desperate look like; a proud, impoverished father to be and a pregnant girl without the self-esteem to look a stranger in the eye. The lived in a frozen rusted car and ate discarded burgers to stay alive.
In thirty days or less, there would be three of them.

I lowered my voice.
“Why don’t you get some help? The government, surely, will help–”
“Yeah, some food, medicine but not a house. Look ‘ere. I jes need a chance at better, I don’t need nuttin’ else.”
Amanda looked out the window then said,
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
She got up quickly and shuffled to the back of the restaurant.
“Family?” I asked, closing the interview pad.
“Ma’ folks is dead and she’s an orphan. We ain’t got nobody much to help. Look, don’t put dat’ stuff away. I can drive a damn truck!”

He rose from the seat and grabbed my arm. The teenagers gathered behind the stainless steel heat lamps to watch. Feeling the power of a man wanting just a chance, I didn’t move my arm as Brian held it firm. He didn’t dream of millions or even many thousands of dollars. His eyes made no demand for cable TV, country clubs, Lazy-Boys, or casual, afternoon cook outs with the Joneses. They demanded a chance. A chance I had taken for granted most of my life. Not the chance at guaranteed success.
Just a chance to try.
“Take it easy Brian. This school costs over six thousand dollars.”
He let go my arm.
“Yeah, six thousand dollars. The down payment to lock in a spot is five-hundred bucks that the school would want in the next seventy-two hours. Now, I’m not being rude or disrespectful but you and I gotta be realistic about this school. Ok?”
“What am I supposed to do? Just give up? I gotta do somein’ sometime to fix all this mess. Every night, it’s just. I mean. I gotta do somein’. This ain’t no way to be married and a father of no ‘count to nobody.”

There was a program in West Virginia. Job training for the sincerely desperate. I’d signed up six or seven candidates using that government plan. It paid no commission and only a reduced tuition to the school. My supervisor said it was close to half the going rate. The week before he’d said,
“Mr. Ward, you’ve signed up more than enough job training people. No more of that for at least three months. If you keep signing people up who don’t pay. Well, we won’t really need you around will we?”
I watched Brian’s eyes dart around as if the answers were floating in the air around us. My mind went back to the check I wrote for gas plus cash to get up here. It would bounce like so many others had already. The eviction notice wrapped around the doorknob. Letting the phone ring and ring and ring because someone wanted money on the other end. Without a sale, Brian and I would become neighbors one day. I looked at our reflection in the black plate-glass window. A small table was all that separated us.

“Can I go to this school on credit or something? The ad said financial help was available…”
“That’s if you ‘re qualified. Look, maybe. Is there any way you can come up the $500.00 down payment? A relative, maybe your Uncle?”
“Willie ain’t got no more money. After his business died, his dumb ass son used all the money to buy pot and smoke that crack stuff. They say Willie and Vera are damned near gonna lose their house. I can’t go for no five hundred from him.”
“Maybe a church somewhere would help?”
Brian laughed and shook his head no.
“Does this thing really costs six thousand dollars?”
“Yes.”
He pulled a Zippo lighter out of his pocket. I pictured the two of them gathered around its flame in the front seat of the car.
“Don’t say nothing to Amanda.”
“About what?”
“The school, the money all that. She really wants me to go to this school. And I do too. We gotta do somein’ and with her being pregnant she can’t do much now. Folks don’t hire pregnant women much ‘round here. So jes don’t say nothing ‘bout the money or the school.”
“You want me to act like you are going to come or what? I mean, this is a little–”
“No sir I ain’t askin’ you to lie, just don’t tell the truth.”
Amanda came back. She grabbed Brian’s hand the moment she sat down.
“It Ok.” he said, reaching up to pat her back. She wiped the corner of her eye with a napkin.
“We were just talking about when I’ll start.” Brian said looking at me.
Amanda patted Brian’s hand.
“Yes ma’am, we were.” I said.
“Probably be at the end of next month though. Classes are purty tight Mr. Ward said.”
“Yes Brian they are. Sometimes we have more people going to class than we can handle. It’s a popular program helping people make twenty-five to forty thousand a year you know.”
“Sounds good don’t it Amanda?”
She nodded and gave a tight-lipped smile.
“Yes.” I said. “There’s a program Brian’s gonna look into down at the federal office that offers job training. Might help.”
Brian looked at me.
“Yeah honey, that’s what I’m gonna do. Probably start the end a’ next month. I gotta tell you Mr. Ward, you don’t seem like the sellsmen type I were ‘xpectin’.”
“I’m not good at this job at all. Ask my boss. When I interviewed, I just needed a chance, I suppose.”
“That’s all most of us need. A chance and some hope fer better.”
Brian thanked me as I left. Amanda shook my hand but didn’t make eye contact or speak. I slid into the Toyota’s seat and watched the two sit there. She lifted her head to glance at Brian. I saw their lips move. They both looked out the window towards the dark, frozen mountain across the road.

A week later I made the follow-up call to Happy-Go-Lucky burger. It was just after 5 pm, the best time to call according to the interview sheet.
A girl answered.
“Thanks for calling Happy-Go-Lucky how can I serve you the best burger in town today?”
“Yes, hi. This is Mr. Ward I would like to speak to Brian or Amanda.”
“There’s no Brian or Amanda working here sir.” she replied.
“No, I don’t think they work there. They sort of stay outback. That brown car beneath the street light. Those folks. I need to talk to one of those folks.”
“Here’s the manager.”
Muffled voices.
“Hello, this is the shift manager can I help you?”
“Yes sir. My name is Mr. Ward. I work with Road Pro truck driving training center.
I was trying to reach Brian for a follow-up on his–”
“They’re gone.”
“What do you mean, gone? Where would they go?”
“I don’t know. We got a new owner and he didn’t like homeless people hanging around. He towed their car away ‘bout three days ago.”
“Where did he take it?”
“Junkyard I guess.”
“Where were Brian and Amanda when the car was towed away?”
“Sitting here. They watched the car get towed down the street then got up and walked out.”
“They just walked out?”
“Won’t much else to do was it? You know, I was thinking about calling your school.”
“That’s a great idea.” I said. “We’ve got one of the best programs around.”
“How much does it cost though?”
“Well, we can talk about that later. Maybe we can set up an appointment.”
“That’d be pretty good I guess.”
“Give me a number where you can be reached. I’d love to talk to you about it.”

Advertisements