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The International Writers Magazine
:Short Story about families

The Man Who Got Away
Martin Green

T
he conference, a quarterly meeting of State statisticians, had ended early and Arnold Gray was back in his hotel room, the Holiday Inn at San Francisco's Civic Center. He took off his jacket and tie, then dialed his home number. His wife Ellen, as if she'd been waiting by the phone, picked up on the first ring.
"How are things in Sacramento?" he asked.

"No good news. Steven didn't get that job." Steven was their younger son, now 23 years old. He’d gone to work part-time for a small market research firm while still going to college at Sac State and after graduating, instead of exploring the job market, had continued there full-time because it was the easiest thing to do. The problem was that the firm's owner was a neurotic woman who had a habit of firing her employees and a few months ago Steven’s turn, as Arnold knew it would, had come.
"Any other prospects?"
"Nothing that I know of," Ellen said. "And he wants to know if he can borrow some money. He has some bills to pay and there's a concert he wants to go to this weekend."
"We'll see about the bills." For the last two months, they'd been paying Steven's rent while assuming his unemployment insurance would cover the rest of his expenses. "He doesn't have to go to a concert."
"But he needs some cheering up. He says he never goes anywhere because he doesn't have any money."
Arnold knew that Ellen would somehow manage to see to it that Steven got the money he needed for the concert. "We'll talk about it when I get back," he said.
"How's the conference?"
"The usual. The weather's not very good, cold and foggy. You should be happy you're not here."
Ellen had wanted to come to San Francisco with him, saying she'd go shopping when he was at his meetings. But he'd managed to dissuade her, telling her (untruthfully) that the State frowned on wives accompanying their husbands on such trips. For the last few weeks she'd gone on and on about Steven and Arnold frankly wanted to get away from her for a couple of days.

"I talked to Paul today," said Ellen.
"Oh? Is he OK?" Paul was their older son, now 25. After giving them lots of problems through high school when he'd been into drugs and alcohol, he seemed to have straightened out, going to college and then getting a decent job with a Sacramento financial planning company. For the last year, he'd been living with a girl named Carol he'd met at a party.
"Yes, he's fine, except for those noisy neighbors they have downstairs. I wish he and Carol would move out of that place."
"They will someday." If they want to, thought Arnold. It was amazing how Ellen wanted to manage their sons' lives. "Well, I'll see you sometime tomorrow."
"I'll be glad when you're back. Maybe you can talk to Steven again."
That was something to look forward to, thought Arnold, as he hung up.


Arnold crossed the Civic Center, where it seemed at least a hundred homeless people had set up camp. Many were drinking cheap bottles of wine as he walked past and several asked him for handouts. He headed up Market Street, which seemed to get shabbier every time he went to San Francisco. As he approached downtown, he noticed one of those gift stores which have all kinds of self-improvement books, inspirational texts, perfumes which relieved stress and, the latest fad that year, a variety of angels guaranteed to protect you against the perils of life. Ellen liked angels so he decided to go in; maybe he could find something to cheer her up.

Behind the counter a large bald man in his fifties, about Arnold's own age, was rearranging some merchandise. He wore glasses, had a day's growth of beard and wore a Mexican shirt, jeans and sandals. He looked up briefly as Arnold entered, pushed up his glasses and looked down again. There was something familiar about the gesture, as there was about the man. Arnold walked to the counter and looked more closely at him. "Sidney?" he asked. "Sid? Is that you?"
The man looked up, glanced around the shop as if to make sure nobody was there to overhear, then said, "Yeah, Arnold, it's me."
Arnold couldn't have been more surprised. Sidney Monk had been his neighbor in Sacramento, his tennis partner and possibly his best friend, when ten years ago he'd suddenly disappeared. Up until that time, he'd seemed to be the typical suburbanite, a stockbroker, married with two children, a Little League coach (for his son) and a soccer coach (for his daughter). Mary, his wife, had been shattered when he'd left and couldn't explain his departure. She'd since sold their house, which was too expensive for her to keep up, and had moved to a condominium across town. Arnold knew that Ellen occasionally talked to her on the phone.
"What are you doing here?" asked Arnold.
"What you see. Running a gift store."
"But what happened. Why'd you run away?"
"The truth? I couldn't take it any more. Our entire life was the kids. Janey was always going to the hospital with ear infections. Jimmy was always getting into trouble."
Arnold remembered that Sidney's daughter was sickly and his son wild.
"And the only thing Mary was interested in was them. She worried about them all the time and they were all she talked about. It used to drive me crazy. And it sure didn't do anything for our sex life."

Arnold remembered weekends with Sidney and his family, the two of them watching football on TV, while the kids ran around and their wives talked about, yes, the kids, what else. "So why didn't you ever tell me?"
Sidney shrugged. "I don't know. You're such a straight arrow, you'd probably try to convince me to stay."
"It took me over a year to find another tennis partner. Do you still play?"
"Nah." Sidney glanced down at his paunch. "I probably should, but that seems to belong to another life."
"So where did you go?"
"Would you believe I went back to New York? I wanted to get as far away from California as I could. But after one winter I knew I couldn't survive there. So I came back, but to San Francisco. I drifted around for a while, had a lot of odd jobs, was nearly homeless once, then I met Nadia and here I am."
"Nadia?"
"Yeah, the woman I live with. She's divorced; no children, thank God. She also owns the store."
"I see. Well, do you ever regret leaving?"
"Not a minute. The truth is that I never really liked having kids. Getting married was a mistake. Leaving was the best thing I ever did. It was also probably the best thing for Mary. But what about you?"
"Me?"
"Yes. Don't you ever think about it? Just taking off. Getting away from everything."
Arnold was spared from replying by a large woman who entered the store from a door in the back and said to Sidney, "What are you doing? You can't spend all your time talking to a customer. You have to get those things in order."
"Arnold, this is Nadia. Arnold's an old friend of mine, from Sacramento."
Nadia looked at Arnold as if he was a dubious piece of merchandise. He judged her to be about fifty, attractive in a statuesque way. She was well-dressed, in a red suit, although somewhat over-decorated, to his taste, with jewelry.
"I should really get going," said Arnold. "I stopped in because Ellen, that's my wife, likes angels. I thought I could get one from her."
Nadia brought a box out from beneath the counter and opened it. "Here," she said. "That's one of our latest. A guardian angel. Guaranteed to watch over you and your loved ones."
"That's perfect," said Arnold. "I'll take it."
As Nadia was wrapping up the angel, a large black cat appeared from nowhere and jumped up onto the counter. "Ah, there you are, Lucifer," said Sidney, stroking the cat's back.
Arnold, who had two cats at home, automatically reached out and patted Lucifer on the head.
"Be careful," said Sidney. "He sometimes bites." But Lucifer only purred as Arnold stroked him behind his ears.
"Thank you," said Arnold, taking the box.
"Look," said Sidney. "You won't tell anyone about meeting me, will you?"
"No, you're secret's safe with me. But aren't you curious about your kids?" Arnold thought they were both in college now but wasn't sure.
"No," Sidney said emphatically. He was still stroking Lucifer's back.
"I sometimes think the only one Sidney loves is that cat," said Nadia.
Arnold didn't know how exactly to reply to that so he said his good-bys and left the store.

It was already dark when Arnold resumed his walk up Market Street. Not too many people were about. A wild-eyed bearded man jumped into his path and asked him for money. Arnold hurried on and, on Powell Street, found Henry's, a restaurant he knew from the old days. Inside, it was as elegant as ever and, as he found when he opened his menu, twice as expensive.
While he ate his dinner, Arnold reflected on the strange encounter with Sid. So Sid had broken the bonds of his suburban life; he’d gotten away. Sid had asked him if he’d ever thought about just taking off. He supposed he had, especially during that time when Paul was drinking and doing drugs. Hadn’t every husband and father thought the same thing?

Of course the idea was ridiculous. But was it? The two boys were grown up, or were supposed to be. Steven would eventually get another job. Ellen could sell the house and move back to Atlanta, where her mother lived. He was eligible for his State pension. It wouldn't be much but it would be enough to keep him going. He could get an apartment in San Francisco and get a job in some store like Sid. Maybe he could even persuade Sid to take up tennis again. They could play in Golden Gate Park. It was an intriguing idea. Maybe he should think about it.

When Arnold paid his bill, the waiter asked if he was from out of town and where he was staying. He suggested that Arnold take a taxi back to his hotel instead of walking. "This area's not what it used to be." Recalling the army of homeless people and the wild-eyed drunk who'd accosted him, Arnold decided this was good advice.

In the hotel lobby, Arnold met one of the other conference participants, a woman named Ingrid Krauss he'd always found attractive. He suggested they have a drink but she said she was tired and was going back to her room. Disappointed, Arnold returned to his own room, where, almost immediately, the phone rung. Maybe Ingrid had changed her mind, he thought. But it was Ellen, sounding breathless. Arnold felt the familiar knot forming in his stomach. What now? "Where have you been?" asked Ellen. "I've been trying to get you all night."
"I had dinner out. What's happened?"
"It’s Paul. He had a few too many beers at work and was stopped by the highway patrol. He called me from the county jail."
"He’s in jail?"
"Yes. Can you come home right away?"
"Let me make a couple of calls, then I’ll drive back."

Paul arrived home around midnight. The next morning he and Ellen had to go downtown to the county jail to bail out Paul, who eventually got probation. Later that year, his son Steven finally got another job. When he moved to better apartment, Arnold had to pay for his deposit and cleaning fee. Early the next year, Paul and Carol were married and bought a house. Arnold helped them out with the down payment. Ellen liked the guardian angel he’d brought back for her from San Francisco. Occasionally, he thought of Sid and that gift shop and about the idea of getting away. It was always something to think about.
© Martin Green Jan 2006
mart_88@hotmail.com

Getting Started
Martin Green
Zelda the Witch
Martin Green

Last Meeting
Martin Green closes the books


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