He wanted to look unlike himself, and after that like a would-be journalist. Steele showered, then pulled on a worn pair of blue jeans he kept for manual labor—though he couldn’t recall any actual manual labor he’d done in them. He ripped off the arms of a gray sweatshirt and put that on too. He flexed his biceps in the bathroom mirror, wishing he had a tattoo. At least his skin was nicely tanned from all the running he did. He gooped his hair with gel and forced a part in the middle, turned his unruly curls into something completely different. He stood back from the mirror. He looked like someone else, but would anyone believe he was a writer? Maybe a journalist needs to be even wackier? He couldn’t tell. He pulled a stretchy red sweat band down around his forehead. Then he put on a pair of dark, pointy shades he had never liked but couldn’t throw out. He slipped his bare feet into some flip-flops. Now he was a writer.
He drove directly to the downtown Goodwill Store and parked in the lot far from the entrance. He noticed that across the street was a large St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store, just as busy. What economic laws put the two major thrift stores across the street from one another? He supposed they did compete in their way. It was nice for the shoppers. If you couldn’t find the right tie at Goodwill, then surely St. Vincent would have something. Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s.
The warehouse occupied the back of the Goodwill thrift store. He saw cars and vans and a couple of trucks drive around. From a distance he could see some warehousemen off-loading the donations, mostly furniture and appliances. None of them looked like Schram.
He went into the store and headed for the back. There were doors between the back wall of the store and the warehouse beyond, but customers passed freely between them. Steele saw one woman come into the store from the warehouse with a receipt in hand. She dropped it on the floor near a waste basket.
Steele pushed through the door to the warehouse. It was a little dark in there, but then he remembered he was wearing sunglasses. He couldn’t afford to take them off. The last thing he wanted was to bump into Schram and be recognized. His eyes adjusted as he strolled from one side of the warehouse to the other. He checked out the employees, not finding Schram.
“Can I help you find something, sir?” It was a big black man wearing a Goodwill shirt. His name tag said Benny Moore, Mgr.
Just then a chest of drawers turned the corner and started coming down the aisle toward them, carried by two men. The guy facing him was huffing and sweating to keep up with the other guy. Steele sneaked a look at the other guy’s face. It was Schram! He wore a disgusted expression, his feelings, apparently, about being partnered with a weakling.
Steele stepped back quickly to get out of the way of the chest of drawers. He was sure Schram hadn’t seen him. But he had to get out of there fast. He spoke in a low voice to Moore. “I was hoping I could do a story on your Goodwill store. Would you or someone else have time to talk to me.”
“I am the manager. Let’s go to my office.” He followed Moore back the way he’d come. He led him into his office. It was a big room with a long low counter on one wall. Every two feet was a computer. Some of the boxes were missing backs or tops. “This is the computer room too. Such a headache.”
“So you accept computers?” Making conversation. Moore sat behind his desk, motioning Steele to a chair.
“Mostly junk computers. If people had half a conscience about it, they wouldn’t bring them to us. Am I supposed to be a computer repair shop? As it is, I have to pay this fifteen-year-old white kid $20 per hour 20 hours per week to diagnose these systems. He puts a red X on everything useless, and we trash it. He fixes some of the others by swapping parts. We get some workable systems out of it.”
Steele said, “You sell those?” Moore liked to talk. Maybe he could work things around to Schram.
“We used to, but we couldn’t afford to give refunds for the ones people told us were defective. People can be real idiots about computers.”
“So what do you do with the working computers now?”
We have a lease with the school district. We keep some grade school computer rooms and libraries supplied with so many machines—right now about 100. If they go bad, we replace them.”
“So it pays to have the kid fixing them up. He must be pretty reliable.”
“I’m sorry to go on about these things. You could care less.”
“No, I’m interested. I freelance for City Lights. They always like stories about local organizations doing good in the community.”
“Yeah--or scandals in the police department.”
“I imagine a lot of people would be interested in what you do with old computers. It might result in some donations.”
“Maybe.” Moore sat behind his desk, Steele in front of it, between them a clutter of household appliances, each smaller than a toaster.
“Tell me more about your employees. Who works here?”
“Well, I do. I’m Benny Moore, manager.” He had a sparkle. Steele sensed Moore appreciated being listened to.
“Nice to meet you. Thanks for taking time to answer some questions.”
“Oh, s-s-sorry. I’m Aaron P-P-P-Peterson.” He hated that stammer. It came out in such awkward moments. He might as well just say “I’m lying.” But Moore’s response to the stutter was a slight increase in attentiveness, even compassion. Nice person, Steele thought.
“How many people work here, Benny?”
“All told, about 60, but many of them are part-time or temporary.”
“They all report to you?”
“Sure. I’m the boss.”
“How long have you worked here?”
“About five years. I used to manage a claims department for State Farm. Deadly. I needed to do something more earthy.”
“I bet they were grooming you for some executive position.”
Moore shot him a how-did-you-know? look. “I guess,” he said. “The guy who replaced me is VP now. Of course, he is a white guy. But they tried. They liked me. I just didn’t like myself. So I quit, took this job, and gained 30 pounds on purpose. I can be myself here. I don’t dress up anymore either.”
“Right on,” Steele said, smiling. He reminded himself that he was here on a mission.
“Somebody told me you’ve got ex-cons working here. Do you cooperate with their parole programs?”
“Yes, I hired one a couple of weeks ago. I don’t take any marginal types. This kid is just 21, spent a few years in prison. You’d never know it. Gentle as a lamb. But strong as a lion. He must have done weight training in prison because he is a human wedge.”
“Did they tell you what he served time for?”
“Yeah, arson. He was still in high school. He told me about it. Got mad at a teacher over a grade. I could relate to that. Sounds like a motivated kid to me. Not hard core at all. When I met him, I was sure he was okay.”
“Is he full-time here?”
“More or less. Today more. He’s here today even though it’s Saturday. Most full-time employees work 9-6 or noon to 9, Monday through Friday. Saturday is starting to get real busy for us, so I stuck him on the noon to 9 shift today. It’s his sixth day this week.”
“Maybe I should talk to him, Benny. It’s a good story for Goodwill and for him. If you could give me his phone number, I could see if he’ll give me an interview.”
“You think the public might be alarmed that we’ve got an ex-con working at Goodwill?”
“Not if I tell the story right. He sounds the opposite of dangerous, and he doesn’t even work in the retail side.”
“That’s true, Aaron.” Still sitting, Moore rotated his chair and pulled open a file drawer on his right. He walked his fingers across the tops of some files, stopped, backed up one, and pulled the manila tab on a skinny file. “I better make sure it’s okay with the guy. You want to talk to him right now?”
“I’d like to but I can’t,” said Steele. I have another appointment. But if you could give me his contact information I could get back to him later today or tomorrow.”
“Let’s go ask him.”
“I really have to run. I’m sorry. Could you ask him? I’ll call you later for the information.”
“That’s okay. I’m sorry you can’t stick around, Aaron.”
“L-l-let me call you in an hour or so. Maybe I can come right back.” Every stammer sounded like a blast from a foghorn, if only people knew. But Moore didn’t know. He looked at him cheerfully, oblivious to the ridiculous slicked down hair, red headband, and pointy shades. Not to mention the flip-flops.
“Call me here at 312-756-8641. I’ll set it up with the guy and you can do a good story. I think he’ll do great. Bring your camera.”
“Thanks, Benny,” said Steele, backing out of the office, giving a last wave at the door.
“Later, man.” Moore stood up.
After Steele left the office, he veered toward the front door and ducked in behind a shelving unit piled high with yellowed, dented lampshades. He peeked through to check Moore’s office door. Sure enough, Moore came out, leaving the door open, and turned toward the warehouse, no doubt on his mission to Schram. As soon as Moore had passed through the doors into the warehouse area, Steele walked back to his office. Entered boldly and walked directly to Moore’s desk. He picked up the manila folder Moore had left sitting out. He opened it and saw the information he wanted printed neatly right on the folder.
510 S. 29th, apt 11
Chicago, IL 60616
Steele read it twice and had it memorized. He closed the folder and walked briskly away from the desk, expecting Benny Moore to enter any second. He would say he forgot his notebook. He didn’t have a notebook. He would say he forgot his pen. He didn’t even have a damn pen. He would say he forgot his shades. The shades had never left his face, but he would say he forgot his shades. He figured writers were often hung over. Half the time they couldn’t tell if they were wearing shades or not.
Soon he neared the front door of Goodwill Thrift Store. He passed the check out counters, conscious of the schlupp-slap, schlupp-slap of the flip-flops at this speed. Now he dared a look over his shoulder toward the warehouse door way in the back. Was it opening? Was that Moore’s black face? Hell, no, it was Schram’s white face, and he was looking at him, Aaron Peterson, AKA Dr. Andrew Steele, counterfeit City Lights reporter, flip-flopping out the front door. He was glad he’d parked on the far side. He hurried to his car and got in. He locked the door. He didn’t start it. He didn’t move. He was glad his Jetta had tinted windows.
He looked back at the front of the Goodwill store. Would Schram come out? Schram strode out the front door, then stopped. Schram stood surveying the lot, noting especially the cars leaving. Would Schram now walk around and check out the parked cars? He did not move. He just watched. Steele hunched in his locked car, not moving, barely breathing. After a few minutes, Schram turned and went back inside the store. Steele sat there, giving him time to go back to the warehouse. He breathed out his relief and was about to start his car when Schram suddenly came out again. Different cars were moving now. He was checking them out. Finally he went back into the store. The behavior sure fit his paranoid diagnosis, Steele commented to himself.
Would he come out a third time? No, Steele guessed he would not. Now was his moment to act. He started the car, backed out of his parking place, and drove away. He did not see Schram behind him. He entered the street and checked his rear view mirror again. He half-expected to see Schram running at top speed after him, gaining on the Jetta. But he didn’t see anyone.