Frank Gunn never liked to dwell on the shadows. He’s a romantic, is what Frank guesses you’d call it. He doesn’t talk about this with anyone but himself and, sometimes, Zelda. You can always trust a dog to keep your secrets. He can’t take too much reality, Frank. But then the reality anchors him too. Why else would he have been driving a rig stuffed with dope for the past fifteen years? Frank knows he’s a contradiction. He dreams of saving someone. It’s not a damsel in distress he’s after, not really, unless she’s inside him somewhere. Still, Frank’s always been drawn to younger women. He’s never acted on it sexually and never would save for inside the privacy of his own mind.
While he drives, Frank reminisces. It’s his joke. He’s not much for the radio except for Sunday gospel, so he keeps it off. He gets off on tangents easy as an apple crumble with pecans, and he fancies taking a pen to paper someday and writing it all down. Maybe he’ll buy one of those old-fashioned typewriters. Not that he ever really intends to. It’s just another part of his ongoing fantasy, along with the girls, and dragon slaying. He’s been through the twelve trials and he’s come out of it with a keen desire to hunt down, redeem himself, save the princess, kill the enemy. All in a manner of speaking, of course.
In reality, Frank figures he’ll be behind the wheel til he can’t see no more. He used to think about finding a woman and settling down someplace quiet, but he’s never stayed still long enough to keep anyone. He’s a nomad at heart.
Before he fell into the transportation work, he used to do odd jobs. Door-to-door salesman, but that went downhill fast when the Internet took off; self-help coach, well, assistant coach, back when he was with Amanda. He drove a school bus for a bit. That’s when he knew he liked to be on the move. He was like the tide, Frank was. He did his best thinking on the go. School bus driving didn’t end up suiting him. He was an immersive guy. He’d get into a think, wind up missing his route completely, end up on the fringes of town, his little buggers nodding off before he got them anywhere near home. When he saw the ad in the paper for a rig operator, week-long shifts plus overtime pay, he knew he wanted to give it a go. That’d been fifteen years ago. He started out on the Memphis to Vancouver route and now he did NY to Portland with stops in Chicago and Kansas City. Truthfully, he didn’t plan to ever quit. He was alright on the move.
He had two memories that he came back to often. One just about the point where he entered the PA turnpike, of lying on the grass in his yard as a kid. Pleasant enough that one. When you got past the toll turnstiles the sky opened up and by the time he crossed that path it was sunup. He’d always liked to watch the sky. Kind of like a dome, and it never failed to make Frank feel safe and small and insignificant. He observed the sky same as when he was a kid, colorless steel-gray azure, didn’t make much difference to him, it was the sense he got of being protected. The sky was really nothing if you thought about it, and Frank realized this, but he never could shake the calm it brought him.
The other memory usually came on outside of Chicago, the buildings retreating in his rearview, ugliness on all sides of him. This one wasn’t one Frank enjoyed, but he braced himself for it nonetheless. It always came, like those hideous billboards, the concrete everywhere, the obligatory trip through the hard side of town that did it for him, brought him back not to that night under the overpass, but before that, when he was in high school. Still a kid, but old enough to know better. Did it anyway.
He’d been trying to rid himself of something, Frank now knows. Around back of the Five-n-Dime where his mom worked, a wonder nobody recognized him while he was doing it. The memory is part feeling, part sound. A punch makes a cottony sound. Skin absorbs. His father George’s fist in the kid’s gut. Not his. Never his. Frank isn’t violent.
Frank could have been a goon. He accepts this. It was always in his blood, he thinks. Yeah, yeah, George was a refrigerator repairman, yes. He didn’t beat his mother or nothing, no. But there were times he near did. Things were always intense in the Gunn house. Old George had some friends and the friends had some acquaintances, and ties like that bind a kid.
Frank’d seen his father beat a man, once, in an alley. He doesn’t know why, doesn’t even know why he was there. Frank was maybe four, five. Too young to ask, to young to know anything but that George was a bad man. He wishes he knew why his dad was so bad, but his father is ninety-two and Frank’s never asked. Now George is more of a marshmallow than a goon. Now he’s wrapped up in Frank’s imaginings, this bad man, a recurring theme, the villain from whom Frank is fleeing, saving people left and right. The running is what defines him and Frank lets it. It’s not even like he can say he wants to be rid of it. The run balances him. The feel of retread humming against broken asphalt. It’s his thing, now, like the vinyl-wrapped steering wheel in his hands.
“Gimme your dough.” Frank’s voice had a lot of weight to it that day. The kid worked with his mom, shelving. It was payday. Frank remembers the kid’s hands shaking as he coughed up his money. Did he plan it? Nah. One thing led to another. Ma always wanted to get Frank a job shelving but he didn’t wanna have her breathing down his neck.
The memory of his father’s fist pummeling into the other man’s gut is his mantra. Denser, more crisp than a slap. Earthy. Menacing. No real punch could ever come close. Frank slouched in the backseat of his father’s Buick, window rolled down, peeking up over the sill even as he tried not to. The sound of that punch. Frank isn’t violent, not on the surface, no. But underneath it, well, you can’t ever escape your depths.
Frank stole eleven dollars off the kid. He needed to take something out on someone, he thinks now. The blood looked brown where it soaked the pavement.
That afternoon, he used the money to take a girl to a movie. Victory was sweet. He bought the girl and him sodas from the concession. The kid bleating, crumpled next to a pile of garbage in the alley, helpless. Frank can’t remember her name, thinks he doesn’t want to know. The movie was a Pacino flick. He’s never punched anyone again. He’s always glad to be past Chicago. He’s made his peace with it, all of it. He doesn’t enjoy thinking about it, but he doesn’t fight it either. Memory as scar tissue. Frank Gunn tries not to lie to himself.
It was the blood on his hands that made Frank snap out of it. He mumbled sorry even as he ran off. He knows not knows there was more than that one punch. But that one, that one was for George. Frank, cowering in the shadows. His father finished the job with just one perfect, silent punch. Not so Frank, says the kid seeping platelets into the tar. One punch for each year he’s been living with the memory. Could he let it go? He ran for the alley exit, crying “sorry, sorry,” over his shoulder, clutching the money like a magic pill. Poor kid. Frank held the girl’s hand during the movie.
Ma’s the one took the kid to the ER. She was always cleaning up after people. “You oughtta see his face, Georgie,” over mashed potatoes and meatloaf. Ketchup dripping. Frank didn’t dare look up. “Who’d do something like that?” George snorted noncommittally, his hand fisted around his knife.
Frank flips his headlights on, pats Zelda, and eases his rig into the middle lane to pass a slow-moving tour bus with a sunrise painted on the side.