Road Trips

Downstate with Frank

By Julia Connolly

Yellow-tinted aviator shades. Brown leather safari jacket. Tan patent leather fake Gucci slip-ons. Dirty-blond home perm. Marlboro.

He was Frank, the 30-something Vietnam vet who sat next to me in my poly sci class at the community college in 1975. He was dating the leggy, blonde, 40-something psychology instructor, a B.F. Skinner behavioralist. He brought up her name at every opportunity.

When Frank mentioned after class one day that he was headed to the Southern part of the state that weekend for “a family thing,” I asked if I could hitch a ride with him to my old home town. I’d kick in for gas money.

“You bet,” he said.

We left after dark on Friday, with a plan to drive his Impala through the night and arrive downstate at dawn. Coffee and bathroom breaks, preferably combined, would be the only stops allowed.

He began talking about his girlfriend before I could fasten my seatbelt, and kept at it for the first couple of hours. “I used to only drink beer, but Linda is teaching me about fine wines. We prefer chablis. Sometimes we share a glass while we’re taking a bubble bath,” he said, and, “Before Linda, I dated only younger women. But believe me, experience makes all the difference!”

Trying to change the subject, I asked Frank if he had any good music on board. “Sure!” he said, “But I’ve got something even better!”

He reached over and flipped a switch on a metal box under the radio, then unhooked a microphone and turned a knob. I could hear two men’s voices.

“Break 19,” Frank said into the mike.
“Yeah driver, come on,” said one of the voices.
“I’m headed south to the Motor City and am wonderin’ what the chatter is out there. Any bears takin’ pictures?”
“Negatory. Lookin’ smooth and clear. Whatcha drivin?”
“I’m in my 4-wheeler tonight. About to go triple digits, come on.”
“That’s good. I’ll be lookin’ for ya.”
“10-4. You keep your shiny side up and your oily side down, now.”

Frank replaced the mike and flicked off the power switch. He sat back, clearly satisfied with the interaction. “Cool, huh?” he asked.

“Yeah. It’s like a whole different language,” I answered, feigning enthusiasm.

We traveled in silence for a while, Frank smoking and me taking in the headlight-lit view of endless highway and trees.

“Hey!” he yelled suddenly. “Let’s stop. I gotta take a whizz.”

We pulled into a truck stop and Frank went in. I could see through the window that he headed for the pay phones instead of the rest room. The phone must have rung a dozen times before he slammed down the receiver.

He walked slowly back to the car and we were off again. The light of his Marlboro reflected in the windshield. He was quiet for a long time.

After that, he took nearly every exit, repeating his phone call with no success.

In the early morning light, Frank dropped me off at a friend’s house outside Detroit. I took a bus back north a few days later.

When I returned to poly sci class, Frank wasn’t there. He missed the next class, too. About a week later he showed up. He’d replaced his leather safari jacket with a denim jacket, his slick shoes with work boots. He didn’t talk in class, but gave me a little half smile when I said hi.

At the end of the next class I asked him how he was, but I already knew. It was common knowledge that Linda had a new, younger bubble bath partner.

“Been better,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it. There was an awkward silence. “Hey,” I said, “let me know if you’re ever headed downstate again. That was fun!”
“You bet.”

Outside the classroom a guy waved him down. “Frank, buddy! Pitcher night at The Lighthouse! You in?”
“You bet,” said Frank. He tapped a Marlboro out of his pack, lit it, and walked out the door.

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