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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

A Period of Unemployment
by Martin Green

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I've had certain indications in recent years that I was becoming an old guy: a young lady offering me her seat on the London Underground; a supermarket clerk asking if I needed help putting my purchases into my car; my sons' friends calling me "sir." It wasn't until I had my 75th birthday that it came to me that I'd been around for a long time and that if I wanted to make any sense of my life it was not too early to begin.

I live with my wife of some 40 years, Sally, in a Northern California retirement community. We have three sons, ages 39, 37 and 30, all married, and (so far) three grandsons. I had a hernia repair last year, my years of tennis-playing catching up with me, but otherwise seem to be in pretty good health; at this moment I should say, as you never know. At the end of 1991 I retired after 27 years with the State of California so I have a decent pension and health insurance, not great, but about as good as you can get nowadays.

When I submit a short story to an online magazine I describe myself as a retiree/free-lance writer. Shortly after retiring I started doing free-lance articles for what was called the Neighbors section of our local paper, the Sacramento Bee. I did about 150 of these before Neighbors was subsumed by the Bee and no longer took free-lance work. Right now I do two monthly features for the Sun Senior News, a paper that gets sent to our retirement community, so I'm still an active free-lance writer. Also, to my surprise, I've had over 150 short stories published on the Internet by online magazines. As with many Californians, the real estate boom has made me, technically, a millionaire. Anyone who knew me in my early years would be very surprised.

My period of unemployment began in the summer of 1963. I was 29 years old. I'd come out to San Francisco from my native New York City four years before and obtained a position doing market research for a long-established local paper company. After a couple of years in San Francisco I'd found a nice one-bedroom apartment across the bay in Sausalito. It had a view of Alcatraz and the Telegraph Hill section of the City beyond it. During the week, I drove into the City; on weekends, my girlfriend Ellen came out to Sausalito. Then the long-established paper company went out of business and Ellen went back to the Midwest to care for an ailing father, never to return.

These twin blows left me a little shaken. I made a few attempts to get another job, but my heart wasn't really in it. As viewed from my little balcony from across the bay, San Francisco seemed like a distant place, which had no particular attraction for me. The paper company, perhaps out of embarrassment, had given a nice severance package to its fired employees and so I had no immediate financial worries. But, as I soon discovered, I still needed some structure to my new unemployed life.

During the week, I usually arose at nine, had breakfast, then went out on my balcony to read the paper and look at My View. I'd then walk along Bridgeway, Sausalito's main street, into town, did whatever shopping and other errands needed doing, and walked back. Jogging hadn't been invented back then. If it had, I might have jogged back and forth; maybe not. After lunch, when the sun no longer shone on my balcony, I sat at a desk in my living room and tapped out short stories on that now obsolete instrument, the typewriter.

This was the 1960's so Sausalito had its hippies, who congregated in the downtown park, where the odor of marijuana was ever-present. It also had its little literary scene, writers, mostly would-be writers like myself, meeting in the bookstore (long before Border's and Barnes and Noble) or in the bar conveniently next door. I started to hang around the bookstore and before long I became part of this scene. We talked about writers and writing, while the guys sized up the girls and vice versa. Nobody asked me anything about myself, which was fine with me. Every week I'd drive to the "unemployment insurance" office in San Rafael to pick up my check. One of these times, I recognized a fellow writer in line ahead of me. He saw me also and gave me a wink.

My body was out of control. I tried to stop myself but I fell and came down hard, bumping my head and then landing on my right elbow. I'd been playing tennis with George Jackson, a writer - actually published - who I'd become friendly with, and I had been chasing after one of his shots. For a minute, I was in a daze, disoriented; my head and my elbow hurt. When my head cleared, George was standing over me and asking if I was all right. I said I thought I was. He helped me to my feet. "I'd better drive you to the clinic," he said. I protested that I was okay, but he got me into his car and drove me anyway.

Some of the girls in our Sausalito literary group were quite pretty and all were promiscuous. Almost everyone experimented with drugs. I kept my distance from the girls and the drugs, although I did go to a party on someone's houseboat shortly after my tennis fall, which had given me a hairline fracture of the elbow. Marijuana joints were passed around. I said I'd pass at first, but one of the pretty girls urged me to try it and I thought, What the hell. The marijuana did nothing for me and the girl went home with someone else.

George Jackson visited me one day to see how I was doing after my fall. The hairline fracture had put an end to our tennis playing for a while. I took advantage of his visit to ask him to look at some of my stories. He read while I looked out over the Bay. Finally, he said they weren't bad but not commercial. "You'll never make it as a writer," he told me.

While I was waiting for my elbow to heal, I spent a lot of time sitting out on my balcony and looking out at the Bay. I could usually see sailboats, like white birds, on the water. Gulls swooped back and forth and I could sometimes hear their calls. It was a nice scene, one that I'd shortly be leaving.

Looking at a large body of water had always seemed to focus my thoughts. Maybe it was the knowledge that this body of water has been there long before me and would be there long after I was gone. So all of the things that usually cluttered the mind faded into insignificance and I could see what really mattered. At any rate, here is what I thought. With Ellen gone and no real friends there, as well as no job, I had nothing to keep me in San Francisco. (I didn't count the writers I'd met in Sausalito, or even Madeline, the girl I'd met who worked in the bookstore. She was a plain girl with brown hair and eyes who wore glasses, the kind of girl who looked as if she worked in a bookstore).

In New York, I had my family and at least some friends. Since I was fated to be a research analyst, why not be in the market research capital of the world? I envisioned my life in New York. I'd get an apartment in upper Manhattan, probably in Yorkville, which was full of good German restaurants. On Sundays, I'd walk to Central Park, find a bench in the sun and read the New York Times. On weekdays, I'd of course go to work. I'd take the subway to my job, which wasn't that appealing, but it would be a short ride. Once every week or two, I'd stay downtown, have dinner out and go to a play. I'd go to the Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Frick Museum and maybe some others. I could also take the subway up to the Bronx and see some Yankee games. I didn't know if Central Park had tennis courts, but I was bound to find some place where I could play.

"It's okay," said Madeline.

"I don't know what's the matter," I said.

"Don't worry. Here, let me help. How's that?"

"I don't know." A little later, I said, "I think it's helping."

"There, I told you."

We were in Madeline's apartment. Earlier, there'd been a kind of good-bye party for me at the bar next to the bookstore. I didn't really know how we'd gotten here and I was a little surprised. The next day, in the first week of October, I said good-bye to Sausalito and drove my Volkswagen across the country to New York City, convinced I'd made a rational decision. I'd given the bird - a cockatoo, I think - that Ellen had left with me and never come back to get, to Madeline.

My parents then had a two-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. I moved into the "guest" bedroom. I found a garage for my Volkswagen, as you didn't drive in the city. I read the want ads in the New York Times. I also went downtown and made the rounds of market research firms and ad agencies. I went to employment agencies. I didn't get a job.

Once again I had to create a structure for my life. During the week, when not looking for work, I'd walk on Fifth and Madison Avenues. I found that a new library had opened near the Museum of Modern Art, where you could get the latest books. I did a lot of reading during this time. Sometimes I'd wander through the Central Park zoo; I liked looking at the tigers and bears. Occasionally I'd walk up to the Museum of Art. I found it restful to look at the Impressionist paintings of country scenes. On weekends, I went again to Central Park, but to the softball fields, where I watched different teams play. It wasn't much of a life, but it was something.

Whatever its faults, New York could be beautiful in the fall. The air felt softer, the trees took on color, the streets and even the people seemed less harsh. There was also a feeling of expectancy. New plays would be opening, new films after the summer trash, college and pro football.

On this fall day I was sitting on the bench by the lake in Central Park where the kids go to sail their boats. I noticed two children, a blonde-haired boy about eight and a dark-haired girl about six, sitting on a nearby bench with a girl I assumed was a nanny or au pair. The girl was blonde with sparkling blue eyes and very pretty. The boy took his sailboat, put it into the lake and pushed it out. He watched it for a while, then tried to reach it with a pole he had but it was just out of his reach. I went over to him and said, "Let me try." I took the pole and tried to hook the boat, but instead I pushed the boat even further out of reach. The blonde haired au pair had come up behind us and she made a little exclamation. I heard a few people laughing.

"Damn!" I said. I quickly pulled off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, waded out into the lake and retrieved the boat. "Here," I said, handing it to the boy.

The au pair girl burst into laughter. "You're a hero," she said, "but you're very wet. You have to come with us and get dried off."

I told her I'd be fine, but she insisted. She took me to one of those tall buildings bordering the park, guarded by a uniformed doorman. The elevator took us up to the 20th floor. The apartment was huge and furnished like a palace. There was a grand view of the park. Trudi, that was the au pair's name, gave me a robe and demanded that I take my wet things off. The pants and socks went into a dryer. John and Mary, the two children, showed me their rooms, both three times the size of my own bedroom in the Bronx. When I finally left, Mary gave me a drawing she'd done, a stick figure, that was me, standing in a lake and holding a sailboat.

Just before winter started, when the leaves in the park started falling, I found a kind of a job. It was with a fund-raising agency which was gearing up for a big drive after the first of the year, and it was temporary with a possibility of becoming permanent.

The temporary job unfortunately didn't pay enough to allow me to have my own apartment so I continued to live (rent-free) with my parents. I took the subway from the Bronx to the fund-raising agency's office in mid-Manhattan, trying to do the New York Times crossword puzzle while clutching a strap to keep standing upright. Once every week or two, I'd stay downtown, have dinner at some modest restaurant, then see a play, from the balcony, before returning to the Bronx.

I won't say too much about the job; the truth is that after these years I don't remember too much about it. I do remember that the fund-raising agency had a file for each donor or potential donor and that I did some clerical work, putting them in order, creating new ones, making phone calls, setting up appointments, even calling some people cold, like a salesman. My immediate boss was a tall, thin man in his 40s named Isadore Bodkins, who took an immediate dislike to me. He seemed to think that my being unemployed for so long meant that I was a slacker and that be taking this temporary job I was also taking advantage of his agency.

Fortunately, Bodkins couldn't be too nasty to me because his boss, I.S. Waterman, liked me, or at least was impressed by my marketing research resume. Whenever some question that might possibly involve marketing came up, he always asked my opinion, and he began to give me little research assignments to do. This infuriated Bodkins, but there wasn't much he could do about it.

That winter was one of the coldest in New York's history. People went around in heavy coats, scarves, hats, gloves. Even walking the short distance from the subway to my office I felt the icy air stinging my face. I no longer stayed downtown after work but took the subway back to the Bronx and stayed indoors. One weekend I met Trudi and the kids and we went to the Central Park zoo, but it was too cold to stay there long. The tigers paced in their cages but the bears were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they were hibernating. We went to a nearby place for hot chocolates, which I'd discovered Trudi loved.

After my near-failure with Madeline, I'd been a little apprehensive the first time Trudi took me to her bed, but I needn't have worried. Whether it was Trudi's exuberance or the passage of time, I was over Ellen. Other than these outings, I did a lot of reading that winter. I also spent a good deal of time with Oscar, the turtle that John and Mary had presented to me for rescuing the sailboat.

In February, I went to a family wedding, one of my cousins, in Brooklyn. A cold sun was out and the temperature was up in the twenties. Maybe winter was finally on its way out. Naturally, all of the relatives came over to ask me what I was doing, then they'd shake their heads and ask me when I was getting a real job. I guess they agreed with Bodkins that I was slacking off. I spent most of my time with some young nieces and nephews who'd come in from out of town. Like John and Mary, they seemed to like their uncle. They didn't ask me any questions about what I was doing with my life.

As we were leaving, one of my cousins, a large overweight fellow named Frank, came over. "Still working at that piss-ant job?" he said.

I didn't think this required an answer. My mother and father by this time were standing next to me. "What's it like to have a son who's a loser?" he said to them.

I remembered from when we were kids that Fat Frankie had a susceptibility to bloody noses. I hit him, not as hard as I could, but a nice stiff jab. He still had that problem. As we left, my father said, "Nice punch."

In April, my temporary job was coming to an end. Bodkins asked me what I'd be doing afterwards. "Bumming around again?" he sneered.

"Don't worry about me. I'll be okay."

"I heard you're supposed to be a writer. I don't suppose you've ever had anything published."

"I have done some writing. And I have a story in this month's Atlantic Monthly."

I.S. Waterman had seen the story and was impressed. A few days later he called me into his office and offered me a permanent job. I'd be the agency's marketing research specialist. The pay wasn't bad. I'd be able to move out of my parent's apartment into my own place in Manhattan. I told him I'd think it over.

In the spring, Central Park came alive. Trees that had been brown skeletons now had green leaves. Plants grew up between rocks. Flowers splashed with color. I'd gone to the zoo. The bears were out again, no longer hibernating. I'd then walked to the lake for one last time. Trudi had gone back to Sweden a few weeks before. I'd returned Oscar, the turtle, to the kids, telling them I was going away and couldn't take care of him any more.

Sailboats floated placidly on the lake. Children played in the grass and their squeals and chatter filled the air. The sky, above the buildings, was a clear blue. Pigeons came up to the bench, looking for a handout. Why was it that I was always leaving a place just when it was as its nicest?

I've said before that looking out over a large body of water always seemed to focus my thoughts. I didn't know if I was thinking exactly, but I knew what I was feeling. I was far from the place where I'd grown up, far from my family. I had no job and no money to speak of. Yet for the first time I felt that I'd come of age. I'd made my choice and I looked forward to whatever lay ahead. Madeline, who'd been running in her bare feet along the waterline, told me to take off my shoes and socks. I did so and rolled up my pants, then she reached out her hand and pulled me into the waters of the Pacific.

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