Thursday, March 26, 2020

A Long Retirement

Growing up, I never knew
Any people of the least
Significance in this world.

My father’s best friend, Charlie,
Impressed me with his knowledge
Of history and the books

Packed around his reading nook,
His old armchair and afghan
Tucked in one lamp-lit corner.

Charlie went to bed early
Each evening after reading
Until he had fallen asleep.

At 3 AM he got up
To drive a bakery van
From a factory that made

Thomas’s English Muffins
On an industrial scale.
He delivered the boxes in crates

To north ‘Jersey’s groceries
And gas-station minimarts,
Back home by mid-afternoon.

He was a high-school dropout,
A squarish man, with a square
Crew-cut and a thick torso,

A cultural square as well,
A nonsmoking, nondrinking,
Rarely swearing, born-again

Evangelical whose life
Was a solid block of work,
Church, and parenting two boys

Who went camping long weekends
With him, my father, and us,
Sometimes. And he read those books.

My hazy recollection
Is that the few opinions
He bothered to speak aloud

Were gruff, reactionary
In certain ways, tolerant
In others, rarely uttered.

He was almost furniture
In my life for a few years—
Fixture of church and camp-outs,

Friend of my father’s—father
Of one of my friends—and then
He came to church less often,

Considered the minister
A hypocrite, said some things
Under his breath, blasphemous.

I don’t know which books he read.
Histories. That’s all I knew,
And as a boy I was bored

With anything not fiction
(Preferably involving
Impossible other worlds).

Last time I was in his house,
I glanced idly at his chair
And the big book open there.

He was fifty-something then,
Still driving the muffin van.
“Going to retire soon,” he said.

One Sunday, Mrs. Perry
(We always called her “Mrs.”)
Told my mother and father

Charlie had stomach cancer.
A week later, he was dead.

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