I don’t know where I am / And I don’t know where I’m going / I reckon it don’t matter anyway / What factories are left here are mainly hiring Mexicans / I reckon that they’ll work without much pay.
Years ago, it had been the site of a filling station. Then it was a used-car lot, but after the main building burned down, the cops had figured out that the owner torched it for the insurance money.
Desperation worked on a man. As he sank, the solutions he tried got more and more radical. That’s why Jake Coebern was in the pen now, serving a little time for arson.
That’s also why Sam Maitlin sat in that paved lot, all except the grass growing up through the asphalt, with a pop-up tent and 1992 Ford pickup, selling watermelons, canteloupes, tomatoes, and peaches. Six months earlier, he’d been joking when he told his mother he could always sell produce on the side of the road.
Never say never.
What people asked – and there were a few who only stopped by because they were nosy – he told them he was mainly living off his savings till he could find something, and it didn’t hurt to try to stir up a little income just to give him some options. Sam figured he should have tried to find employment as a full-time snoop because the town had a lot of them and they seemed to be prospering.
Sam had a lot of “don’t call us, we’ll call you’s.” He’d started out applying for full-time jobs. He’d gotten a severance package when the company had eliminated his “position.” Nothing had seemed urgent. He could bide his time, pick and choose, but then had come the gradual lowering of expectations. Sam came to realize he was just the kind of employee companies were anxious to eliminate. These were desperate times. He had been around too long. He was making too much. His insurance was expensive. He knew his rights, right up the day he lost them. They took advantage of the fact that he was out on the road, never in the office, and so, while they plotted ways of lopping him off the payroll, he’d never seen it coming. They called him in on the eighth day of January, and that was the day they took back his mobile phone and key to the building. He’d made them money. It took them some time to figure out how to make it another way. Some accountants in Texas, at the corporate headquarters, figured out how to make the numbers work, and the Human Relations Department in Ragan, four states away, took it from there. Sam went from working for the Ragan Daily News to having the Ragan daily blues. He wasn’t eligible for unemployment till his severance ran out, and then it wasn’t enough to pay for utilities and groceries, and he’d applied for roughly seventy-five jobs, and out of all of them, he’d been interviewed a grand total of twice, but he even had a couple “your resume is excellent, we’ll be back in touches” from companies that didn’t deem an interview necessary. By the time the unemployment ran out, Sam was down to school-bus driver, substitute teacher, part-time tutor and public-relations specialist. Oh, and some other jobs that were completely based on commissions. He couldn’t sell encyclopedias door to door. There wasn’t any such thing.
Given the outlook, he figured out he might as well sell produce.
What was a man to do? Well, he could get his old pickup running, set out for the State Farmer’s Market at five in the morning, and lay down his cash money for fifty watermelons, twenty-five canteloupes, ten baskets of peaches and two bushels of tomatoes. If he could all that sold before it went “to the bad,” he could get up early and head right back down there. He peeled ten percent off the top and gave it to the man who owned the lot and a license to host commerce within its borders. Sam knew damn well the issue of sales tax was going to come up, but he set a little money aside for now and was really fond of dealing with the public in case and, occasionally, other considerations. So far, he was keeping the electricity on and slowly whittling down his credit-card balances.
If everything went well, and all the old truck cost him was gas, and someone local would sell him okra, onions, and squash, he could clear almost a hundred dollars on every load. He had some other things he did on the side: string a ballgame for somebody, and things would pick up in the fall when football started, and then he could make a little scratch running parlay cards.
Some things he would not do, but the list was getting smaller.
TO BE CONTINUED