I stepped off the bus into what may have once been a prosperous part of town. One can never accurately tell a town’s history by simply looking. This could have been a movie set for all I know, something out on the back lot where they filmed Dragnet or one of the other TV cop shows. But it was typical small town California on the fringe of LA. The object of my search matched the address I held in my hand, a small hotel in the standard fake Victorian motif, the gingerbread molding tacked on as an afterthought. Behind the counter was a woman of indeterminate age, she could have been forty, she could have been seventy. She was thin as a scarecrow and dressed in what might have been the latest style thirty years ago, her smile was as frozen as a dead mackerel laying on a bed of ice in a fish mongers basket. I placed my week’s worth of money on the counter while she recited a litany of arcane rules. This ritual when she proffered with her claw like hand the room key. I took it, carefully avoiding any touch that might accidentally occur and trudged down the hall devoid of any furnishings. My room wasn’t much, barely eight by ten with a single bed, a straight back chair, a small bureau, and narrow coat closet. Considering I didn’t have much and my prospects were slim or none, it was enough. I was tired and I needed sleep. There was one swallow left in the flat pint of cheap whisky I took out of my coat pocket. It would do for tonight.
Next morning I was up and out, walking the town. The local library was seven blocks to the north, decidedly in a better part of town. Three things tell you a great deal about a large town or small city. The first is its library. Is it in a prominent part of town and does the building reflect the pride the people have in their public institutions? The second is the newspaper. No, it’s not the front stories or the editorials that count but the advertisements. That tells you about local businesses. And the third is the telephone book, the yellow pages. If you see a large number of bail bondsmen listings then you know the crime rate is high. You also know that if the crime rate is high the police will roust you far more often just to show the locals they are on the job. I needed a job right now. You see, a job gives a man instant respectability no matter how low the pay, and respectability keeps tho cops off your back. So I size up a few prospects from the help wanted ads and the yellow page listings. With some luck I might have a job by this afternoon, albeit a menial job, something that will pay the rent and a little food.
The dinner over by the warehouse and factory area needs a dishwasher, so I take the job. A man without a job can’t be too choosy about what is offered in the way of employment. Besides, it’s the only job offered at the moment. Other jobs will come along, experience tells me that. Besides, men talk when they eat in twos and threes. I can pick up information about new opportunities, maybe be noticed as I bus their tables. The ones I want to avoid are the cops, they get too nosy, got to keep an eye on you, make life hard for you. Sooner or later I’ll have to deal with them, but for now I’d just as soon keep them at bay. One thing I’ve learned though, always carry a book under your arm. A newspaper in your hand or pocket is a dead giveaway if you’re not wearing a suit. But a book suggests you want to better yourself even if you are wearing work clothes. Even the owner of the dinner is impressed by the book I carry, he treats me different. I may be down on my luck but he thinks I’m really trying. Besides, reading helps pass the time and I got a lot of time to pass.
People don’t ask questions when you establish a regular routine, regular habits so to speak. I had free meals at the dinner and spoke a little about myself, never revealed too much. People don’t ask about your past when you tell them about your future. they only worry about where you’ve been when they don’t know where you’re going, so I figure a little about my past told in general terms is safe enough. A man may have a few broken windows in his past but human kindness is always the same, help a man mend those windows and make them shine. People love success stories, even the cops. So I sign up for an adult education class one night a week. I tell the education people I never finished high school. their eyes light up and they are ready to help me obtain that GED. We agree on what I need to study. I’m a good student, careful to score just high enough to make the teacher think I’m doing well but not high enough to make them wonder why I bother to come, why I’m not in the community college instead. I get to know a couple of the teachers and the administrators, they’ll give me referrals to better jobs and references about my character. It takes me a few months but now I have a new identity, a new life.
I am becoming more respectable, the cops smile at me as I walk past them. I even join a local church. You know, you got to pick the right one. The Methodists are middle class and not too strict in their social rules. Baptists are a little more rowdy and blue collar, if you know what I mean. But avoid those independent types, the ones that want you to act like them and spend all your free time in church. They want to suck all your money out of your pockets. Episcopalians don’t want the poor and the needy. Lutherans are okay as far as that goes. So I join the Lutherans, a nice quiet group, maybe two hundred members, if that. They area good cross section of social and financial classes. How do I know this? People are happy to tell you about who is in their congregations. So now I am making new acquaintances and in a couple of months some man, a business owner, will ask me to come and work for him. For now, I stay in the background, help out on committees and be an usher once a month, that sort of thing. Just try to fit in a little without being obvious. Some social workers call that being reserved, I call it being smart, playing my cards close to my vest without being obnoxious.
Sure enough, wouldn’t you know, a guy asks if I want a job with his company. He’s got a small manufacturing business and needs a good dependable man in his warehouse. The pay is a little low but he says he’ll rent a two bedroom cottage he owns at a cheaper rent so as to make up the difference. I say, why not. I want a step up in the world and once again human kindness is overflowing. John at the dinner is sorry to see me go but he understands. Says he’s got a high school kid coming in just after graduation. I make him a deal, I say I stick around at night until the kid can take over. I can use the extra money and I have a friend for life. My boss hears about my deal and is impressed, thinks I am loyal and think of others first. Very good impression, very good. Funny thing is that when you start making good habits they tend to change your life, you think differently. Oh I’m careful not to be too friendly with the boss, the rest of the men don’t like it. They don’t know me yet and always keep an eye on me. It’s enough to be polite and a little friendly, you know, just say hello here and there while calling them Mr X or sir if it’s the foreman. Soon enough they will tell you to call them Frank or Bill or John.
But life is more than loading and unloading trucks for the factory, not much room for advancement here and I need to rise a little higher than shipping clerk. So I take more adult ed classes. Business English and Communications is a start. Maybe add a second night and take bookkeeping, always handy in the business world. By the time I’ve got a year’s time in at the loading dock I’ve accumulated enough courses and enough recommendations, and enough references to move on in this town. And sure enough there’s an opening in a large plumbing supply warehouse for an buyer. The owner is a member of the same church and my boss has talked to him about me. I have made myself worthy in their eyes. Besides, their wives worry about me on the social scene. I make a point of going to a few of the church socials but I don’t act as if I’m looking for a girlfriend, let alone marriage. The older women are already trying to match me up with single women they know. So now I forestall some of that by taking more education courses. Gives me an excuse to avoid too many matchmaking attempts. Besides, when you are focused on your future women are more concerned with that future than with your past, and I am not about to let on about my past. I figure that so far, half way across the continent I have out run it by now. Odds are no one who could even recognize me would ever stop here.
Six years have come and gone and I am starting to feel secure. I’ve moved up to senior buyer and make good money. Even got money in a savings account, almost enough for a down payment on a house. A woman from church, Jill, is interested in me. I think she has her cap set on marrying me. Smart and attractive slim brunette, about middle height, good personality, wants to be a mother of two, maybe three children. Not sure I want to be a father. Her father is a partner in a local law firm and she works as an executive secretary for the director. Her family isn’t rich but they have money, more than enough for their needs. They also have a real estate firm and there is a vague hint of needing someone to manage their properties. I must say, it is a tempting offer but it means marriage to Jill. Perhaps I do have some love for Jill, haven’t really thought about it. Well, a bit of a courtship might help that along.
Life is good. So far seven years of good luck. I took a couple of courses in real estate, sales and contracts and the whole nine yards. Helped Jill’s father a couple of times in the management of his real estate holdings. He gave me a modest bonus for my efforts, went for the down payment of our house after we marry. Jill’s all caught up in wedding planning, my god, how we talk about this and that about furnishings and paint colors and everything else. The wedding is planned for the second Saturday next month but I am apprehensive. I felt a cloud starting to form. There was a name on the guest list that bothered me. A name that knew me back east more than seven years ago. I wonder, I wonder. I asked Jill who that person was. “Oh, that’s a friend of Daddy’s. He’s a district attorney for one of the big cities back east. Daddy says he made his name in a famous case years ago.” Now I am filled with dread. I recognize the name, I see the face, and I can hear the voice. I want to run.