The International Writers Magazine: Life Choices

Martin Green

On 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.

 The decision, 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 for now.
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 going back.
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 service.
 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 him.
"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."

Collected Stories, Vol. I
53 short stories; 315 pages
Available online at
Price:  $18.95

Last Meeting
Martin Green closes the books

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