International Writers Magazine: Life Choices
a weekday afternoon some 40 years ago, Arnold Gray, then 24 years
old, walks disconsolately along San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf,
having just been treated to lunch at the city's finest seafood
restaurant. It's one of those bright, sunlit days when San
Francisco seems magical, its light-colored hills appearing to
float over the clear blue Bay, the venerable Golden Gate Bridge
sparkling as if brand-new. Arnold has just about made up
his mind that he'll be leaving all this and returning to the grim
reality of New York City.
which he'd been wrestling with over the last month, comes down, as many
things do, to a simple matter of economics; more specifically, having
a job. Arnold had come to San Francisco two years before and,
surprising himself, had almost immediately been hired by a small but
prestigious market research firm, headed by the scion of a well-known
California family, Tommy Flowers. He'd enjoyed the job until six
months ago when, another surprise, not to say shock, the firm had suddenly
been put into bankruptcy amid stories that Tommy had been siphoning
clients' money into his own pockets.
Arnold had then discovered how difficult it was to find work in a city
to which thousands of talented young people flocked every month.
The job openings of which he'd heard when working for his research firm
now all seemed to have disappeared. Everyone was friendly enough
when he called or dropped in, but nothing was available. His savings
were dwindling and his unemployment insurance was running out.
There seemed only one thing left for him to do: return to New York.
After all, the largest market research firms were headquartered there.
His family and his old friends from college were there. Who knows,
maybe his old girl friend, Marilyn Gold, who'd cried when he'd left
for San Francisco, would still be there, waiting for him.
The only problem was that he'd left New York to get away from all that,
the track he was supposed to follow: go to college, get a job, marry
a nice girl (like Marilyn Gold), then start a family, probably move
to a little house out on Long Island when he could afford it.The track
was clearly marked because this was exactly the way all of his old friends
had gone. Well, maybe he was supposed to go that way, too. In
ten or twenty years time, that escape to San Francisco, if he still
remembered it, would seem like a little diversion, a minor blip in the
course of his life.
Then had come the feeler from the food company which had its main office
in San Francisco; they were considering hiring another research project
manager and would he like to interview for the job? He had interviewed
once, then again, then once again, his hopes going up and down, while
the company tried to
make up its mind over what it apparently viewed as a monumental personnel
decision. On his part, he'd told himself that if he didn't get
this job then he'd most likely go back to New York. The lunch
he's just come from had been the final installment in the food company
drama; the marketing director himself, after telling Arnold how impressed
they were by him, had then said they'd decided to hold off hiring anyone
Arnold has by this time left the Wharf area and has come to Hyde Street.
He decided to go into the Beuna Vista, the bar that overlooks the Bay,
for an Irish coffee, maybe a last one in San Francisco. As if
conjured up by Arnold's recent thoughts of him, there is Tommy Flowers
at the bar, as dapper as ever in seersucker jacket, striped shirt and
trademark bowtie, looking as if his firm's bankruptcy had never happened.
"Hi, kid," says Tommy when he sees Arnold. "Let
me buy you a drink."
Arnold thinks, Why not? Tommy has cost him his job and all of
his savings, he might as well have a drink at his expense. He
orders an Irish coffee. Tommy looks closely at Arnold. "You
didn't get the job, did you, kid?" he says. Arnold doesn't
recall mentioning the food company to Tommy, but then Tommy has always
known everything that's going on.
"No, a nice lunch but no job."
"That's too bad. What are you gonna do now?"
"Go back to New York." And, in that moment,
as he speaks the words, Arnold knows he's made his decision. He's
Forty years later, Arnold Gray sits in a downtown Sacramento restaurant,
the guest of honor at a dinner commemorating his retirement from the
State civil service. The emcee of the dinner is Tommy Flowers,
who'd come to Sacramento from San Francisco to become a legislative
assistant and had ended by being chief of staff to the Governor.
Tommy is giving a speech, being very funny as he tells stories
of Arnold's tenure as head of the state's Health Statistics Branch,
trying to provide reliable information to department heads, politicians
and, yes, even Governors, who already knew what they wanted and could
get quite disagreeable when the facts didn't square with their needs.
He draws laughter as he recounts how his Governor had demanded to know
how such an honest person had managed to advance so high in the State
Arnold smiles but he isn't really listening to the stories, which
in any case he's heard before. He's thinking of his youngest son,
David, who's just come home from college on spring break, and who's
trying to decide what to major in. "It's a big decision,
Dad," he'd told Arnold with great seriousness. "It'll
affect whatever I do the rest of my life."
The rest of his life. Arnold thinks back to that day forty years
ago in San Francisco. Everyone who knew him supposed that Arnold's
old boss Tommy Flowers had brought him to Sacramento and had shepherded
him through the State civil service. It was true that Tommy had
helped him along but this was not exactly the whole story. The morning
after Arnold had decided to return to New York he'd walked from his
apartment to a nearby park. It was another sparkling day.
The park was on a hill and from the bench on which he sat Arnold could
see the white sailboats fluttering like great birds on the Bay.
Someone else sat down on the other end of the bench, a young man of
about his age, blonde and tanned, looking like a California surfer.
The young man commented on the view and they fell into conversation.
Arnold found himself telling about how he'd lost his job, the months
of looking for work, and then his deciding to go back to New York.
The other young man listened sympathetically, then said, "Sounds
like you've had a tough time," while he placed a tentative hand
on Arnold's thigh. Arnold immediately moved away, saying, "Hey,
you've got the wrong idea." He stood up and began to walk
away. He'd gone about ten steps when he heard a voice behind calling
"Hey, I'm sorry, okay," said the young man. "Look,
I work in a State agency down at the Civic Center. I'm pretty
sure they're looking for some research people. You don't sound
as if you're that hot to go back to New York. I can give you the
name of the guy to see. Why don't you check it out?"
So that's how Arnold came to get his first job with the State and why
he didn't go back to New York City after all. He recalls how he'd
imagined his life unfolding: getting married, a family, the house on
Long Island. So now he's married, has three sons and has a house
in the suburbs of Sacramento. Forty years ago, he'd thought he
was making a decision which would affect his whole future. Was
any decision that fateful, or was there something that made your destiny
inevitable? After another forty years, maybe his son David would
be wondering the same thing.
Arnold had often wondered what had happened to the young man he'd met
in that San Francisco park. What event or chance meeting
had determined his life. Could anyone ever really know?
© Martin Green April 2006
Collected Stories, Vol. I, by Martin Green
consists of 53 stories divided into five sections, covering the span
of a life from childhood to middle age, depicting experiences all will
recognize. In Growing Up in the Bronx, the experiences include desperately
wanting a tricycle for Christmas, facing up to the school bully ("The
Fight"), a "First Kiss" and first "Betrayal."
Army stories depict struggling for survival after being drafted during
Korea, struggling to gain a foothold in the work world ("Getting
Started"), as well as first love, before the big decision to leave
behind job, girl and (Jewish) mother to gain "freedom" in
California ("Good-bye New York"). San Francisco stories chronicle
the adventures of young men on their own for the first time, a hopeless
passion ("Being in Love"), an illicit affair ("Party
Time") and a decision to settle down ("Going to Sacramento").
In Sacramento Stories the focus shifts to marriage, children and work
("Paying the Bills," "The Promotion"). The last
story reflects on something we all must face, "Mortality."
Stories, Vol. I
53 short stories; 315 pages
Available online at iUniverse.com
Martin Green closes the books
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