Old Dog, New Tricks




I wasn’t able to finish the story I was working on in time, so the following was a writing exercise from a year or so ago, which means I’m straying a bit from the normal essays presented here. Sometimes it’s good to go outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes it’s an epic failure. I guess we’ll see which way this falls.


            The year was 1964, and then suddenly it wasn’t. It was now 2014 and a seventy-one year old Charlie Hathaway abruptly found himself retired with nowhere to go.

            Fifty years ago, Charlie started work at Worumbo Mill in the small town of Lisbon Falls, but when the factory burned to the ground in ‘87, he went to work at the gypsum mill. Boys his age in mill towns such as Lisbon Falls didn’t often go to college, not in the early 1960s anyway, but the mill provided a good living for those who stayed. Lisbon Falls was famous for just two things that he knew of: Vicuña wool and Stephen King. Stevie went to Lisbon Falls High and left to become a writer of some fame, while Charlie and his former crew at the Worumbo Mill made some of the finest woolens in the world. Gypsum was gypsum, but it was a good job and Charlie never complained.

            Charlie retired on a Friday, and they put together a nice sheet cake in the break room and everybody said they’d stay in touch. They shook his hand and told him they’d miss him and on Monday morning, when his alarm clock went off at 6:00 am, Charlie got up, unplugged the clock, and put it in his nightstand drawer. “I guess I won’t be needing that any more,” he said to Brenda Hathaway, his wife for over a half-century.

            Now what?

            On his first day of retirement, Charlie felt as if he was playing hooky. In fifty years, he had only taken a handful of sick days, and never, ever, did he take what they now call a mental health day. What for? He liked going to work and he liked the people with whom he worked so it was never a bother to do what he was supposed to do. Now he had a whole day off—scratch that—a lot of whole days off, with nothing to do but figure out what he could do.

            He poured himself a second cup of coffee, something he never did except on weekends, and thought about this. He had nothing to do and nowhere to be for what he hoped would be a long time. 

            Charlie decided he’d clean up the garage, on a Monday no less, and as decadent as that was; it only lasted a few hours. He was seventy-one and in good health and had a lot of years to fill and only so much garage to keep clean.

            He sat on a lawn chair in the middle of his now tidy garage and picked up the newspaper. On the back of the sports page, behind the scores and the ads for tires, he saw a story on Tiger Woods—you know, the golfer—and he suddenly wished he had taken up golf. It looked like fun but he never had the time, but now he had all sorts of time and that’s when it hit him. Charlie Hathaway now knew what he was going to do.

           He would take a year out of each of the years he had left to learn something new. He reasoned that if he did something every day for a full year, he’d get pretty good at it. Maybe not great, but pretty good. So that’s what he did, and it started with golf.

          Charlie bought a set of used clubs and worked out a deal with Fox Ridge and started the next day. It wasn’t as easy as Tiger made it look, but it wasn’t as hard as working a twelve-hour shift in a gypsum factory either. He went three times a week and when he wasn’t on the course, he chipped balls around his backyard into paint cans. By the third month, he was a lot better and by the seventh, he was joining foursomes with other retirees and by the end of the year, he was golfing in the low nineties, but the year was up. It was time to start a new challenge.

            Over the course of his year of golfing, he met a man who had moved his family to Lisbon Falls, Maine from Lisbon, Portugal, and he thought that this man had the most beautiful accent he had ever heard, which led him to his next challenge. He would learn Portuguese, which was a totally useless language to know in the state of Maine, but that’s what made it interesting.  He bought one of those beginner language programs and after two months, he bought the second level and then a few months later, the third. By the end of the year, out of the blue, he began speaking fluent Portuguese to his Portuguese golfing buddy who was so impressed and flattered; he took him out to lunch at a place that made the best pie Charlie had ever had, and Charlie thought he had some good ones.

            So that’s when Charlie decided to be a baker. He spent a few months making pies and when he had perfected the flakiest crust anyone had ever tasted, he moved on to Napoléons and Tartelette Fraise-Coco’s and became the best golfer/Portuguese-speaking baker in all of the state. The newspaper ran an article on his golfing, his language skills and his baking and for a minute, he became a minor local celebrity, but that wasn’t Charlie’s intention. He still wanted to learn new things.

           When the baking year was up, it was time to move on, and over the next few years, Charlie Hathaway wrote a book, he learned tai chi, he built a pair of dressers and nightstands (from scratch!) and he and his wife spent some time in Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sulwhere in Brazil (where his Portuguese came in handy), where he learned how to spearfish and make hats out of palm fronds.

           He read the thick books he always wanted to read (including Stephen King’s twelve-hundred page opus, The Stand), re-roofed his house, learned French and when he couldn’t get the perfect ratio of coffee grounds to water for a full, robust cup of coffee, he started roasting and grinding his own coffee beans. Nothing was out of his range, especially with all the time in the world.

           Retirement was the best thing that ever happened to Charlie Hathaway and on the day of his eighty-third birthday, he thanked friends old and new in three different languages and then promptly collapsed face first into a cake of his own baking. The room grew silent.

          A week later, Charlie opened his eyes and saw Brenda standing over him while holding his hand. “Am I dead?” he asked. “Is this heaven?” She told him that he was not dead—actually he did die, but only briefly—and that the good doctors fixed him. Something about his heart and blood flow, but that was all behind him now. His doctor said he had all the time in the world. This is when Charlie Hathaway fine-tuned that thought he had on the first day of his retirement: It’s not about having all the time in the world, it’s about not wasting any of the time he had—and he was already behind by seven days with his next adventure because that saxophone in the living room wasn’t going to learn how to play itself.








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