Okay, okay, I just thought you had to be polite. Maybe a little sensitive: a smile here, a nod there –that’s all it was supposed to take. Nobody told me there was an ethical framework involved. For that matter, I wasn’t even told there were rules until I got here. But I suppose the play doesn’t end until the curtain comes down so I should have guessed. I should have realized they wouldn’t understand –they couldn’t. Once the curtain falls, there is no encore…
Retirement is hard on people –the ones still working, I mean- and you can’t just assume they will adapt. Or care. There should be classes they are required to take when they are first hired. Or maybe an app that guides them through it one stage at a time –an interactive one, so they can be sure they understand that work is only the second chapter in the drama. They are denied the third act until they’ve earned it –without that, the play is meaningless. Forgotten.
I’m usually only looking for a table in Starbucks –faces come in a distant second. And besides, unless they’re ringed with grey hair, the heads arrive and disappear like bubbles in a boiling pot. But every once in a while, a pair of eyes will inadvertently disturb the water where they’ve hidden, and pattern recognition takes over. Familiarity doesn’t necessitate identification at my age, but occasionally a name will float close enough to the surface to grab.
I hadn’t seen Thomas in a while –not since he worked for the accounting firm our office used, anyway. He’d changed in the interim, I think –what hair remained on his bespectacled head was thinner, with only hints that it had once been dark and shiny. Now he wore it much as a tonsured monk might –but messier. And yet there was a certain consistency to his appearance as a whole. He was dressed, tieless, in a creased, off-white shirt, open at the neck. I couldn’t see more than the cuffs of his pants, but even in the shadows of the table where he huddled, they too appeared wrinkled.
He sat, anonymous as a bush in a forest, staring sightlessly at the room, a coffee sitting motionlessly in front of him like a dirty rock steaming in the sun. If he hadn’t brushed me accidentally with his eyes, I might have missed him. Maybe he had not wanted to engage, or maybe my name and face lay as firmly in the past as his to me, but memories intertwined atavistically at the fleeting retinal touch.
“Thomas,” I said, walking over to his table with coffee in one hand and bag with a steaming breakfast sandwich in the other.
He glanced up from studying the faux-wood surface where his mud-filled beverage lay and suddenly smiled. “Edward,” he said, half rising from his seat and extending his hand, “How are you?”
“It’s James,” I replied, but sotto voce, because he seemed so happy to have remembered a name.
“How have you been?” he continued. “I haven’t seen you in…” he thought about it for a moment. “…Years…” But he sounded uncertain, so I left it lying fallow.
I sat down still smiling broadly. “Yes, I guess it has been a while hasn’t it?”
There was an awkward silence while he evidently tried to recollect just where he’d seen me. The fact that he and the accounting firm he represented had dealt with my taxes for several years seemed lost on him –or at least misplaced. But lost or not, he didn’t seem to be hauling unpleasant jetsam aboard, because his expression was unwavering, if unreadable. “So are you retired now?”
The fact that we both looked undisguisably long in the tooth and dressed the part, he could not see. Or chose not to. So I merely nodded pleasantly as if to acknowledge we were fellow travellers. But I felt I had to reply in kind, in case he saw it as a wound that needed bandaging. “How about you? Still working at…” -I couldn’t remember the name of the firm- “…accounting?”
His face changed and a shadow seemed to cross his brow. “Retired three years ago, Edward… I think you beat me by a year or two…” He glanced at his coffee as if something were written inside the rim. “Funny you should ask, though…” His eyes walked up my arm but stopped short of my face. “I went back to the office yesterday –just to say hello, I suppose. You know… see how things were getting along there without me…”
His expression darkened like that shadow; I should have left it there, but I smiled and looked at him as if it was the type of thing we all do. “So, how was it? Still the same people there?”
He glowered at the table. “Nobody even recognized me, Edward! After twenty years in the firm, and ten years in same the office at the end of the corridor, nobody even looked familiar -except one of the typists who got my name wrong when she saw me…
“They all thought I was on the wrong floor, or lost…” He stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Finally, one of the women –the one who emerged from my old office, actually- came over and shook my hand. ‘We had a heck of a job getting your old desk through the door, Timothy,’ she said, proud that she thought she’d remembered my name. ‘They even had to unscrew the legs and destroy one of the drawers to get it down the corridor.’ She laughed when she said that, as if it had acquired the status of a legend that was told with twinkling eyes around the water cooler, or something.
“My regional manager was away sick, she informed me, in front of some of the others, but by the looks on their faces and the eyes darting back and forth, I gathered he wasn’t expected back…”
His face seemed so sad, I had to look away for a moment.
“You ever go back to your old studio, Edward?” He evidently couldn’t remember where I worked either –the Past has a way of Rorschaching itself, I suddenly realized.
I smiled –lamely, I suspect- and shook my head. You can never go back.