Dead Man's Clothes

Lester L. Weil

I had been kicking around the East Coast after a dishonorable discharge for slugging a lieutenant. He might have deserved it, but I shouldn't have decked him; it was just acting on a bad impulse. Acting on bad impulses is what I'd been doing for too long. With a dishonorable, good jobs were hard to come by. I fell in with an older couple who were running small time cons and proceeded to waste a couple years of my life working the small con with them.

Robert and Rayna. They always called each other 'Bob and Ray', and smiled at some joke which I didn't get. We were moderately successful and making decent enough money. But then Rayna started using, and to finance her nose habit, they started shorting my end. So after an unexpectedly profitable con, I didn't go to meet them as arranged. I took the money, caught a bus, and spent three days crossing the country, putting as much distance between me and my former 'partners' as possible. I had only a ratty backpack with some old clothes—part of the con—and the money. The things I left in my rented room were worth nothing much, cheap clothing and such that wouldn't be missed.

At a dinner stop in Sacramento, I walked around to stretch my legs. Which is why I ended up, looking pretty scruffy, on the sidewalk in front of a thrift store down the street aways from the bus station. Now I admit that lately I haven't been a very good person, and my scruples have been a little loose, but my mother taught me to be polite, and that has always stuck. So when I saw a past-middle-aged woman trying to wrestle a couple large plastic garbage bags out of her car, I offered to help.

She straightened up, stepped back to give me room and murmured a soft “thank you” as I reached for the bag. When I had the first bag out of the car, I started to ask where she wanted me to put the bag. But she just looked at me and burst out sobbing, leaning her hand against the car to support herself. There wasn't much for me to do except stand there like an idiot, holding the bag while sobs racked her body.

After a moment, she got herself under control and wiped her eyes with the cuff of her sleeve. She apologized and told me that the bags contained her dead husband's clothes, and since I was about the same size, I was welcome to them. “Please—please take them.” I retrieved the second bag and she fled, speeding off in her car, as if to put me, the clothes, and everything else behind her.

So there I was there on the sidewalk with two big bags of clothes. Dead tired after all the time on the bus, I figured that Sacramento was as good a place as any to stop and rest awhile. So I hefted the two bags and checked into the run down hotel on the corner. I tossed the bags in the corner, flopped down on the bed and slept for a solid twelve hours.

* * *

At dawn, I sat and watched brightening skies, visible between the buildings across the street. I looked around at the room. Everything was old and threadbare, used and sad. Story of my life. As I waited for the water in the shower to get warm I tried not to look at the scum on the walls and floor of the small metal stall.

But at least I felt much better after the shower, even though the water had been lukewarm. Feeling clean for the first time in far too many days, I was reluctant to put on the old clothes I had been wearing. So instead, I put one of the bags of clothes the lady had given me on the bed and started to go through it, sorting the clothes into stacks. There were five suits, two silk and three wool in dark colors. The dress shirts appeared to be custom made. I tried one on and it fit nicely. There were casual clothes, sport shirts and slacks, and a nice leather sport coat. The other bag contained a couple sport coats, shirts, some underwear—to my amazement made of silk—plus socks, ties and other miscellaneous items, even a Stetson fedora. The two pair of Italian shoes were a half size larger than what I usually wore, but still fit ok.

I stood back and stared at the clothes on the bed. The woman's husband sure had good taste in clothes. I had never owned anything anywhere near the quality of the things before me. I picked out one of the wool suits and a matching tie and handkerchief. I took my time dressing and the 'new' clothes felt good. I donned the fedora and looked at my self in the mirror.

“I'll have to buy myself a walking stick.” And I laughed, to—and at—myself.

* * *

I left the hotel and went looking for a place to eat. Stopping in front of a hole-in-the-wall greasy spoon, I looked in the window. This was the type of place where I would normally eat, but somehow these clothes I now wore did not seem to fit there, so I walked on and eventually ended up at the restaurant of a 'businessman's hotel' where everyone was wearing suits. I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and stayed to read the morning newspaper over coffee. I felt positively…I don't know…legitimate maybe.

On the way back to my hotel I hesitated while passing a pawn shop. I didn't want to stay at the run down hotel. I was tired of the types of places that I had lived in for the past years. So I entered the pawn shop and bought a couple large old fashioned leather suitcases. When my new clothes were carefully packed, I threw my old clothes in the trash and took a taxi back to the businessman's hotel and checked in.

I spent a leisurely time hanging up suits and shirts and organizing my other new things in the dresser. When everything was organized I changed the suit for a pair of slacks and a sport shirt and tie, donned the suede leather sport coat and left the room. On the way out of the hotel, on a whim I stopped and had my shoes shined, even though they really didn't need it. Sitting in the chair having my shoes shined, I felt like a different person.

I started out walking aimlessly. It was different, being 'dressed up'. People looked at me and nodded, where before they used to avert their eyes. I strolled along the river, enjoying the parks and found myself in the 'old town' section. It was a bit touristy, but interesting all the same. I spent a lot of time in a museum looking at old gold rush stuff. But I ended up spending the most time in several used bookstores.

In my 'dim past', I used to read. In high school and immediately after, I read a lot: science fiction and novels—Wolfe, Steinbeck, Dos Passos—and also a great deal of history. After a couple years working, I finally decided to go to college. But when I got to college though, I got caught up in the drinking and partying and ended up dropping out before my freshman year ended. The only thing that I took away from my college career was the drinking and partying, which culminated in one very unfortunate evening and a judge subsequently giving me the choice of jail or the army.

That afternoon I took advantage of the comfortable chairs in the quiet hotel lobby, reading one of the books I had bought. The history book served to revive my interest in the Civil War. I began to think it had been a bad mistake to give up on my intention to study history in favor of the drinking and partying.

I had dinner in the hotel dining room, and since it was crowded, shared my table with a man from San Diego. We kept our conversation mostly to non-personal subjects. Sam was a talker, a salesman by trade, and he could keep a conversation going all by himself without breaking a sweat. But I found it was actually very enjoyable. I hadn't had a real conversation with someone for years it seemed, at least when I wasn't working or planning a con.

That evening I took in a movie, but it just turned out to be disappointing Hollywood drivel. When I returned to the hotel I looked in at the cocktail lounge and saw Sam. I joined him and ordered a draft. The one good thing that happened while working cons with Bob and Ray, I managed to curtail my drinking habit. Now I rarely drank more than a couple beers at a sitting. Sam though, was knocking drinks back pretty steadily, all the while explaining what a good day he had. He soon became not very good company, as a drunk is wont to do, so I went up to my room and read myself to sleep.

* * *

The rest of the week was more of the same as I enjoyed a new leisurely existence. I would put on a suit or sport coat and wander around old town. Visiting museums and bookstores was a far cry from my usual pastimes. The afternoons were usually spent reading in the hotel lobby. Dinner, and sometimes breakfast, I ate with Sam, again enjoying our conversations. After dinner I would catch a movie, read, or watch TV in my room. Usually I would have a beer or two with Sam later on in the evening. Fortunately, it was only that first night that he drank heavily. As we spent time together talking about life, politics, and the world in general, we became comfortable with each other…became friends.

On Saturday night, Sam and I sat in the lounge talking. He was telling me about his past and how he ended up working as a salesman. He had worked his way up to regional sales manager. But now he was starting a new company, using the connections he had made over the years, and was very upbeat about the prospects.

After a third beer, I started telling him the story of how I ended up here: college, the army, and after. By now I was comfortable enough with him that I didn't sugar coat it. I just told it plain, how it happened, what I had been doing.

Sam listened to my story and then asked, “So, where do you want to go from here? Back to that old life? Or do you want to forget that and put it behind you, start a real life? Be a real person. Get a job, maybe meet someone and start a family or—hell, go back to college and do it right this time.”

I thought about that, but I couldn't see myself going back to college. On one of my walks I had strolled around the Sacramento State campus. Everyone looked so young, even many of the professors. I couldn't see himself relating to those kids—children really. And what would I study. History was my main interest, but what do you do with a degree in history. No, I couldn't see myself going back to college. Besides, you didn't have to go to college to study history.

Sam and I talked late into the evening. The more we talked, and the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me. I needed to get on with my life and become a 'real person'—leave the shady life I had been living behind. By the end of the evening Sam had offered to start me off with a job with his new company—and I accepted.

So here I am now, on an airplane heading to San Diego to start a new job, and a new way of life. And it had all started with a dead man's clothes. There is a saying that 'clothes make the man'. Now…I don't know if clothes make the man or not…but they certainly pointed me in a new direction.

        Lester L. Weil is an ex-professional bassoonist, ex-professor, ex-custom furniture builder, ex-house builder. He is retired in Arizona near the Mexico border.

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