Chapter 1: A Chance
Max Wagner settled in a little niche in the brick wall and tried to stay warm in spite of the biting wind. He had seen better days. He had arrived in California with his family and with his hopes and dreams intact. He was a carpenter by trade, even a master carpenter, and he, his wife, and their young son had hoped for a bright future on the West Coast. He found work almost immediately, and he earned good money. Then fate struck. First, his wife fell ill with Tetanus, dying a horrible, painful death. Only three weeks later while Max was working, the neighbor who watched Max' son sent the six-year-old out on an errand, and the boy was run over by a shying horse. In less than a month, Max lost all reason to live.
The cheap booze he could get down at the harbor was his only solace, and even that was not easy to come by when his meagre savings dried up. Now, two years later, he lived on the streets of San Francisco, begging for pennies with thousands of other beggars. He'd not had his hair cut in a year, and the rags he wore were dirty beyond belief. He did not care. All he cared about was to beg enough for a mug of moonshine.
Right now he was lurking in a narrow alley beside the Grand Opera House. He would hold out there for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening until the patrons would start to leave. Then he could offer services like helping the ladies climb into coaches without dirtying their dresses. He had even washed his hands and his face for the doormen of the opera house chased away those whose hands were too dirty to touch the costly garments of the patrons.
He waited patiently, listening to the muted music coming from inside. They were rehearsing. Enrico Caruso would be singing the Don Jose in Carmen. Even Max knew that Caruso was the most famous singer in the world, and the faint music coming from inside touched his heart. Back when he had a wife and a son, they had dreamed of owning a gramophone one day. Tears came to his eyes as he wept over his lost family.
There had to be a pause, for the music had stopped. A few minutes later, a side door opened, and a man in a black suit emerged and lit a cigarette in a tip. Max looked at the man.
"Excuse me, Sir. Are you Mr. Caruso, the singer?" he heard himself ask.
Momentarily startled, the famous man stepped back, but seeing that Max was sitting against the wall and not threatening, he nodded.
"Yes, I am Enrico Caruso. With whom to I have the pleasure?"
Max gulped. The famous man was polite to him, to a ragged beggar.
"Max, Sir. Max Wagner. I'm a ... well, I used to be a carpenter."
"What happened to you?" the great man asked showing honest interest.
"I lost my wife and my son," Max said brokenly. "They're dead."
"Ah, a great tragedy, a great loss. But my friend, this is no life!" With his right hand he fished inside his pockets and produced a coin. He looked at Max sharply. "This is a ten-dollar piece. You can drink it away, my friend, or you can go to a barber to get your hair and beard cut. You can buy decent clothes and report here tomorrow at noon. I'll see to it that there will be work for you, but you must not spend this money on drink. It is your choice alone."
The gold coin sailed through the air and landed at Max' feet.
"Choose well, my friend," the great singer said, and then the side door closed leaving a stunned Max behind.
He stared at the coin in his hand. It was a Gold Eagle, an honest-to-God ten dollar coin. When Max had been a carpenter, he had sometimes earned ten dollars in a week but he had not held that much money in over a year. Slowly, his hand closed around the coin. He came to his feet and walked slowly and carefully along the alley towards the back of the opera house. He thought furiously. Could he really get work at the opera house? Could he still work as a carpenter, did he still have the eye and the hand of a craftsman?
For ten dollars he could drink himself into oblivion for a straight week. He could drink enough to end it all. Yet, he felt an obligation. Even for a rich man such as Caruso giving away a gold eagle was a grand gesture. The famous singer expected Max to right his life using that gift. Could he disappoint the great man?
Two hours later it was getting dark and Max found himself close to the harbor, close to a run-down tavern where he could get a mug of moonshine brandy for a Nickel. He was about to go in when something caught his eye. Opposite the tavern there was a low building, a store of sort. What caught Max' eye was a brightly lit window on the side of the store and a woman's head behind it.
The woman seemed young. She had her full blonde hair bound up in a frayed bun, and she wore glasses perched on her nose. Max' stared at her unable to turn away. She was so pretty. She looked like an angel, like his dead wife Helen. Stepping closer and looking through the window he saw that it was a thrift store. There were rows of clothes on hangers and other used goods.
Suddenly, Max felt the gold eagle in his fist. Was fate giving him a nudge? There was the thrift store with the things he would need for a new start. Then there was the tavern with all the booze he could drink. Max looked down at himself and he felt revulsion. He was dirty, he was stinking, he was human refuse on the street. Casting a last look at the tavern he marched around the corner where the light was spilling from the entrance door of the thrift store. He entered hesitantly and blinked with the brightness inside.
"No begging!" a harsh voice sounded.
He turned and saw the young woman behind a table.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am," Max spoke up. "I've got some money, and I need new clothes badly."
The woman eyed him. "You need more than new clothes," she sniffed.
"Yes, Ma'am," Max agreed dejectedly.
His tone seemed to change her attitude.
"Listen, Mister: there's Pritchard's all-night bath and barber shop around the corner," she suggested less harshly.
Was it fate? Was providence placing him in a situation where he could not but try for a new start?
"Yes, Ma'am, but I'd need new clothes for after the bath," he said obstinately, not willing to antagonize fate now that he'd made a commitment.
The woman sighed. "You're a tall one, but skinny. What sort of clothes do you need?"
"Good work clothes, Ma'am. I'm a carpenter."
The woman nodded. "There's a set of clothes from old Mr. Matthews, the cooper." She pointed at a clothes stand. "Why don't you try them for size, Mister ... What's your name?"
"Wagner, Ma'am, Max Wagner."
"Well, Mr. Wagner, try them. They're a dollar fifty. You need shoes?"
"Shoes are another dollar. I'll throw in some wool socks."
The garb of the late Mr. Matthews were a good fit, if a bit wide, and in a bin he found a pair of fairly decent shoes that fit his feet well enough. He thought of something else.
"Ma'am, you wouldn't happen to have a razor kit for sale?"
When Max left the store he was four dollars the poorer, but he carried his treasure towards the bath house pressed against his chest. This was not a gentleman's bath but one that catered to sailors. For fifty cents he was shown a tub filled with tepid, soapy water. There was a mirror, too, and a soap brush. Trying hard to control his shaky hands, Max shaved off his wild beard. He managed to do so without nicking his skin more than thrice. He stilled the blood with a styptic pencil of potassium alum and then submerged himself in the tub. He had a half hour, and he used it to scrub his skin raw.
In between, the owner dropped in to cut Max' hair. The long blonde strands fell away, and when Mr. Pritchard held a mirror for Max, the face that stared back at him seemed strange. He was certainly looking civilized again, and when he dried his skin and donned his new clothes he felt better than in a very long time.
"You want I burn them rags?" Mr. Pritchard asked pointedly, and Max managed a smile.
"Yes, please. Burn them!" Max took a deep breath. "Won't need them no more."
Max could not resist the temptation to return to the thrift store. The woman was about to close it for the night, but she smiled when she saw Max in his newly acquired splendor.
"You certainly clean up well, Mr. Wagner," she said appreciatively.
"I came to thank you, Ma'am. You were so helpful."
"I'm glad that I could help, Mr. Wagner. You've been living on the streets?"
Max nodded, blushing a little. "Yes, Ma'am, ever since my wife 'n son died and I lost my mind."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I can feel with you. My husband died two years ago, but at least I have my daughter. I hope that you'll be all right again."
"I was promised work at the Opera House," Max said with a touch of pride.
"Oh, my! That sounds so fancy!" the woman laughed.
Max stared at her for a moment. She was so lovely when she laughed! She saw his hungry look and she stepped back. He was contrite.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am. I didn't mean to frighten you. I just haven't seen a pretty woman from up close in more'n two years. I had better leave you now. Again, my thanks, Ma'am."
He turned to leave, but the woman's voice stopped him.
"You have a place to sleep in your new clothes?"
He turned. "No, Ma'am. I was hoping to find a dry place near the dockyards."
She breathed deeply. "All right. There's my shed. It's dry, and you can lock it from inside. You'll find my handcart in it. You can sleep in the cart bed."
Max swallowed heavily. "That's very kind of you, Ma'am. I am right grateful."
"Say nothing, Mr. Wagner. And please, my name is Elisabeth Adams."
.... There is more of this story ...