By now, everything should have settled into place –like compost in the garden after a good rain. And by now, all this extra time I have been awarded in Retirement should have been subsumed in the frenzy of getting on my horse and riding off in all directions. But I’m sorry; this surfeit of Time I have been told to wear, was designed for a larger man. And yet I am growing into it, I suppose: like J. Alfred Prufrock I shall wear my trousers rolled.
One of my older and recently retired friends whose teeth still fit, invited me to his apartment to talk the other day. Between naps and mysterious trips out of the room, he mentioned that he was exploring the idea of volunteering and wondered whether I would be interested in joining him.
I thought about it for a moment under the heavy scrutiny of his eyes. “That’s an interesting idea, Tony,” I replied cautiously. I’ve learned to be careful with Tony. He was, after all, the one who decided we should try the Polar Bear swim on New Year’s Day a while ago, and then changed his mind once I was in the water. And then there was the parachuting event when we invested a day learning how to do a jump, only to have him change his mind –again- when he saw the instructor trying to pry my fingers off the wing strut and jump so I wouldn’t destabilize the plane or something. Tony is like that: full of good intentions that fall prey to last minute compromises.
I blinked to disengage his eyes and riffled around inside for my usual ‘What is it this time?’ smile. “What did you have in mind, Tony?”
A suspiciously benign expression that bordered on beatific gradually captured his face. I knew he’d assumed it slowly to tweak my interest. That always worked –we were both restless souls.
“ESL,” he eventually said, his eyes twinkling at the very sound of it.
I couldn’t help furrowing my brow. “English as a Second Language?” I blinked again, but this time in disbelief. Tony is Brazilian, or something, and English has never been his strong suit. He still gets the meaning of some common expressions wrong –he used to think a couch potato was something you snacked on while you were watching TV. Stuff like that.
“Yeah,” he said as enthusiastically as a child, his face beaming, and his eyes flitting about like barn swallows after insects. “We volunteer to go overseas to teach ESL and…”
I held up my hands like a politician quieting a crowd. “Why overseas? Couldn’t we just do it here in Vancouver?”
His eyes quickly returned to their proper roosts and he neutralized his face to rest for a moment. “Actually, I was hoping for a trip.”
“But… I mean, don’t you have to take classes to learn how to teach ESL?”
He shrugged with that Brazilian indifference to insurmountable odds that I’ve always found so motivating. “What’s to learn? You point at stuff; they listen and repeat the words.”
I couldn’t believe he was still so naïve at his age.
“Anyway,” he continued after a brief reflection, “I haven’t thought it totally through yet.” He loosed his eyes again. “But what do you think?”
“Well, we do have a lot of new immigrants arriving…” I was stalling for time, to tell the truth. I wasn’t sure that either of us would be of much value in the language industry. “Maybe we could help them in some other way…I don’t know, maybe like…” But I had to shrug at that point, and anyway I could see the words were just bouncing off him as soon as they arrived.
He rolled his eyes impatiently; it was a look I knew all too well. “You know what your problem is?” I disguised a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You’ve got no imagination. You get stuck in the old ruts and I always have to come along and push you out!” He paused to take a breath. “You’re an old car!”
He was shouting now –extemporizing, I think, because I could see he was running out of his limited cache of expressions. Actually, I was impressed with his use of metaphor. Retirement was obviously forcing him to branch out.
“The future is in Language,” he continued, waving his arms excitedly.
I nodded my head slowly, as if I was considering the wisdom he was expounding. In reality, I couldn’t think of any other response, but he studied me expectantly as if I was going to finish the sentence for him. And when I didn’t –when I merely stared back at him- I think he was disappointed. I realized he needed a suffix, or something, to show that I had, indeed, been listening and digesting his idea. I cast about in my head for a helpful aphorism, but all I could come up with was, “Well, how do you think we should start…?” I know it was lame, but I had to say something.
His once so active face relaxed into a smile, and his arms dropped to his side as if they had finally accomplished their mission. He pretended to consider it for a moment. “I…” –the artful hesitation again- “I think you should compose a letter to…” His expression suggested he had to reflect on this for a second, and he managed to screw his face up in serious contemplation. “…a letter to the mayor, outlining our idea…” He reconsidered the word. “No, our proposal.” A satisfied grin replaced the smile and he crossed his arms and sat back in his chair.
“But it’s your idea,” I replied, somewhat taken aback by the suggestion, but not really surprised –this was Tony, after all. “Why don’t you compose the letter and we’ll both sign it?” This seemed like a reasonable compromise.
He shook his head and blinked at me. “I’ve never been very good with words…”