Old Men Who Write
photo by Christina Schmidt
On a too-warm fall morning I am moving tables and chairs into place in the small township library two blocks from my suburban house. I am forty-eight years old and I am going to teach writing to adults. The library has a budget for instructors, and so I am being paid to teach writing, for the first time. Since the library cannot, according to its charter, charge anything for the class, it is with halting trepidation that I await my first students: Who takes a free writing class on a Monday morning? Will any of them even be able to write—anything? Are they coming because they are bored, lonely, unemployed or just like to read? I do not know what to expect. Sixteen names are on the list, but I’m pessimistic of the whole idea that people will show up for something in which they are not financially invested and so I arrange ten chairs, figuring that if only six or eight show up, it still won’t look that bad. I won’t look that bad.
I am worried about so many things, but mostly that they will want someone younger, someone less care-worn or who is more obviously optimistic, someone who believes that everyone who writes can write well and all those who want to be published will be. But I am not feeling optimistic. It has been a difficult couple of years, and I feel old. I have been interviewing for jobs and twenty-five-year-old managers look at me as though I am their grandmother. I have also lost my father, but so much more: My church parish, which I had loved, sent away both Franciscan Friars, who were interesting, engaging sorts, people I respected and liked, and in their place sent dull replacements priests who have trouble looking me in the eye. My sons have moved on, from middle school to high school, from primary school to middle school. My mother has had a heart attack, and 2700 miles and so many cross-purposes lie between us, and I am loose with all this change. And there have been a record number of rejections from editors, and even though there have been acceptances too, it is the rejections I focus on. They make me feel much older than forty-eight, and not in a way that feels wise.
Then. Something wonderful happens as I make photocopies of the handouts and pull my Post-it marked books from my canvas bag. I notice that I do not feel old this morning. I feel energized, excited. I have something to say, and, I hope, people to say it to. Decades of writing have toughened me, softened me, to their plight. Maybe age is an advantage in a teacher.
Then. Another wonderful thing happens. Fourteen people arrive and take seats, pulling up extra chairs and angling in to all fit around the two tables I have matched together. And the next wonderful thing happens: though I am older than a lot of them, I am younger than a few. Much younger, in fact, than one in particular.
There are eleven women in the room and three men—one was laid off the week before from a job as vice president of training at Lehman Brothers, the second is a stay-at-home dad and former copy editor, and then there is Robert Alexander, who is old. Very old. Ninety. This makes me feel younger, and also, I must ashamedly admit, upon his self-introduction, that he is hard of hearing and a wise acre. And frightened that here is yet more evidence of a pattern in my life of late, which I do not understand, but cling to.
Old men have been stalking me. Or, perhaps I seek them out. In the last two years, I have been collecting, seeking maybe, but anyway hoarding, encounters with old men. Everywhere I go, there is an old man I am certain I would have not noticed before. I watch their gait, gaze at their age-spotted skin, smile at the familiarly stained cardigans, recognize the way they clear their throats, cough and shake their heads. I watch, transfixed, as they unfold dollar bills from a neatly folded stack, remove hats the moment they walk through a door, neatly fold their trench coats over the back of a restaurant chair. Once, an old man at a Red Lobster stirred his coffee with a butter knife and I cried into my crab legs. Do all old men do that? I thought it was just my father.
With his shuffling, I’ve got-time walk and tendency to repeat himself, Robert reminds me of my father, who died two years ago this very month, and so he is on my mind. Robert’s presence in the room, reminding me of my status as the daughter of a dead man, rattles me a bit. I am also aware that I need to temper Robert’s perhaps unintentional attempts at taking control of the agenda with his self-deprecating humor. But I have no idea how to do this, either as a teacher or as a woman who could be his daughter.
Robert has come to class without, he explains, his hearing aids, and could I please speak up. I ask him to sit next to me, and he does, and he smells like aftershave and stale crackers. When I ask if everyone uses email, he pontificates, in a not annoying way, about why he has no use for a computer and asks if he can recite a poem he’s written about how his brain is better than a computer. I tell him I would be delighted to hear it when it is time for sharing our writing toward the end of the session. His long blink makes me immediately wish I had responded differently, but how? Allow anyone to recite any poem at any time? We have work to do. Or at least I do.
I begin a discussion about reaching back in our lives for stories, and I notice Robert’s brown-flecked big hand resting on a small diary, the once-black leather worn to dull brown on all edges. I ask him about it.
“This is my diary from when I was a boy, in the 1920s. Oh, there’s a lot of stories in here, you bet,” he says. I expect him to say more, but he quiets, nods, and taps his fingers on the book. For a second, I want to reach across and push open the clasp (does it still lock, I wonder?), but of course I do not.
“I hope you’re thinking of writing about some of those times?” I ask, stupidly impressed with myself.
“Oh, I don’t know. It was all so long ago. I’m pretty old, you know,” he says, his hand stroking the book, his eyes averted to a shelf of nearby reference books.
“Well, that’s okay,” I say, not knowing what else to say.
Robert throws his arms up in the air and smiles. “It’s okay that I’m old? Well, thank you very much!” The lightheartedness is back in his tone, the tease returned to his watery eye.
Everyone laughs. I notice he’s crossed his stilt-like legs one over the other at the knee the way my father used to and, also like my father, that on his eyeglasses a frayed Band-Aid cushions the part over the bridge of his nose. I am glad to have my notes to concentrate on, printed out, slid into plastic sheet protectors, in a neat three-ring binder, because I don’t know what will happen if I keep looking Robert’s way. As I discuss writing, I glance at each student and try to ignore Robert’s slow nods, the way he raises an index finger in the air and dips it slightly to signal his agreement.
I can’t look, and I can’t look away.
Later, when others are reading aloud from the writing exercise we have just completed in class, Robert doesn’t volunteer. And I forget to remind him to recite his poem. I’m packing up notes and books and chatting with a woman who wants to write about once being a “women’s libber,” when Robert leans my way and explains again, interrupting, about his hearing aids and how he won’t forget them next time. When I ask him to remember about the assignment, he answers that he won’t forget because it’s already in his “computer,” and then he begins to quietly recite the poem about his brain, and at first I think I will have to feign being charmed, but instead I realize it’s actually quite good.
“I like that poem, Robert. Will you write it down so we can all take a look at it next time?” I ask.
“I don’t need to write it down, I can say it out loud again next week,” he says.
“Yes, but I’d like everyone to see the words on paper. You can write it in long hand, or do you use a typewriter?” I realize that I am exasperated, that I am nearly shouting, and although the man is hard of hearing, he is also standing only inches from me. I realize, but too late of course, that the exasperation is not about his hearing aids, but about how frustrating it was to communicate with my father in the last few years of his life. His own hearing aid was either always malfunctioning, or forgotten, often on purpose, on his dresser. Even when he could hear me, however, my father chose to ignore any part of what I said to him if it didn’t coincide with his own ideas. It occurs to me that getting through to Robert might or might not be the same experience, but that I had better be careful—this man came to me for advice, and even though he may, like so many students in so many classrooms the world over, at first be suspicious or dismissive of the writing advice I can offer, I could do real damage here if I assigned to him all the unresolved business between me and my father. I need to keep our interactions between us, between me and Robert.
Robert says he might write his poem down and I say thank you and I remember to look him in the eyes when I say this. Later, when my husband asks how my first class went, I tell him it’s an interesting group of students, most with a high level of interest, but that I am still a bundle of nerves, even hours after class had ended, and that I think it’s connected to Robert.
“He’s an older man, really old, and he’s sort of annoying, but also charming in a way,” I explain. “He can’t hear, he interrupts, he makes bad jokes, and I’m not even sure he wants to write. I think he’s just lonely.”
“Or maybe he wants to write and just happens to be old,” Frank suggests.
I think about Robert’s diary. Why would he bring it along if he did not want somehow to share its contents? I wonder if I should have asked him to read from it, if I should have asked, politely, if it was all right for me to look inside. Is that what he wanted? For someone to open that old book, to look backwards seventy-five years, to nod, to know?
Here is where my father and Robert are alike and not alike. My father wrote, for decades, and squirreled it away, in deep drawers, scrapbooks, expanding brown file folders dry with age. Except for corny poems, he showed his work to no one, left it behind when he died. He would no more have attended a free local writing class than be purposely impolite to anyone. Even when I had been a writer for decades, he’d been too polite even to ask me to read what he’d written, and I suspect I would not have given it the attention I allow even these strangers across a crowded table in my local library.
As part of their assignment, my students are supposed to email or call me, three days after class, with the name of the memoir they have chosen to read during the six-week class. I know not to expect an email from Robert, and I suspect he will not phone either; I remember how my father avoided the telephone in his older years. I consider calling him, but then I remember what it was like, in the final months, when my father refused to wear his hearing aids at all; me shouting into the phone and rolling my eyes in my empty kitchen, and him saying, what and how’s that and say again. I know how often I gave up. I have no idea how often my father wanted to give up.
Then, on day three, the phone rings, and my younger son reads from the caller ID. “It says, Reynolds, Robert. Who’s that?”
I take the phone. “Hello, Robert.”
“Oh, you know it’s me! How clever, these new phones! Listen I have a cold, it’s not that bad, but I don’t want to give it to anyone and it’s chilly out so I won’t be coming tonight, I’m sorry,” he says.
I am momentarily confused; tonight I teach a different class, meant for those who want to learn about becoming freelance writers. I suddenly realize he’s signed up for that one, too. Now I decide he is more interested in social contact than writing.
“Robert, you take care of yourself. Don’t worry about it at all,” I say, pronouncing my words slowly and with care so that he will hear and understand me—though nothing he has said or indicated would lead one to assume he is befuddled or mentally diminished. I wonder for a moment who I am actually talking to.
“Well, I wanted to ask you—I wrote a play a while back and I wondered if you’d look at that instead of an essay. It’s about my life.”
Immediately, I am embarrassed for treating him as a prototype, an old man, not a writer, and worse, as a stand-in for my father, for all old and discarded men. I feel stupid, for thinking his age might have any bearing on his ability to write, or to think. Hadn’t I just recently, in a dozen job interviews, been acquainted enough with the other end of that kind of thinking? And I realize I have mistaken my job here; it’s not to make a nice old man feel he is still vital, or to give him something to do and somewhere to be a few times a week, but to figure out what he needs as a writer.
“Of course I’ll read it,” I say.
“Good. I also have a story I want to write, about the time I found my best friend kissing my girl. You know back then, a kiss was a big deal, so catching them kissing each other, that was a major thing for me—I was about ninteen. Would that be the kind of true story I can write?” he asks.
“Yes, that’s perfect. Does that come out of your diary?”
“Oh no. The diary—that’s other stories.”
I was beginning to feel better, to feel that I was the teacher, he the student, and age didn’t matter and that I had clearly established the boundaries I at least needed. Then Robert tells me again that he has a cold and is not coming tonight, and could I read a play he’s written, and that he has a story to tell about his best friend and his girl.
Robert comes to the morning memoir writing class twice more, hands me his play script, but then doesn’t come back. I spend time thinking about whether I should phone him, or find his address and mail the likable play back to him, marked-up now with some encouraging notes, or maybe drop it in his mailbox, or even ring his bell. But I don’t phone him or ask the one librarian who I have noticed he is friendly with, if she knows whether Robert is okay or if she has an address.
Instead, I decide it is all about me. Did I push him away? Did I try to get too close? In week two he’d asked if I would take his diary home and read it. I’d declined, politely I’d thought, when I glimpsed the slanted script inside, but not because I didn’t want to read it, but because I’d feared tearing the dry tea-colored pages, and because I didn’t want to be responsible for taking it home where I routinely lose my own keys and eyeglasses and misplace treasured old recipes from my dead great-aunt. I suggested that he photocopy it first and give me the photocopied pages, and when I left that day I saw him at the copy machine with a stack of coins, but looking perplexed at the row of blinking buttons. Guilt resurrects an image of my father calling and telling me to go out and buy that day’s Wall Street Journal so I could read something “very interesting”, and my telling him to have my brother email me a link instead.
Then I think Robert may simply have another cold. I picture him in a doctor’s office where the young internist slaps him on the back and says, “I hope I’m in as good a shape as you when I’m ninety.”
On week five, the second week in a row when he doesn’t show up, I momentarily think I see him in the library’s foyer when I first enter, juggling my heavy tote and switching my sunglasses for bifocals. But I’m wrong. When I get closer, it is a new older man I see, already settled at the seat furthest from where I will be teaching, a walker parked beside him, a yellow legal pad and black fine marker on the table. He has not been here before and I wonder if he’s in the wrong place, or expecting something different this morning—the historical society meeting maybe, or the geologist scheduled the next day to discuss the centuries-old boulder some Cub Scouts found in town.
I smell him first and it is the combination of that, plus the sight of his walker, his stooped seated posture, the sparse hair littering a balding head, his wool sweater vest over a flannel shirt, and the smooth cold curve of a hearing aid seen from behind, which pulls me closer, and repels me too. The smell is one I recall from my grandfather’s bedroom forty-five years ago; not so much sour breath and mildew, sporadic hygiene and dusty house, though there is some of that. This old man’s smell is more powerful and immensely more unsettling to me: it’s too many cigarettes and too much cologne, too little mouthwash and too much espresso. In other words, my father has come again to call. My father had this smell too, though his was more precise—Listerine and tobacco, Vitalis and espresso, Rolaids and Paco Rabanne. What, did I think this smell was limited only to old Italian-American men in my own family?
And so, another old man is in my path. I do the only thing I can do, and introduce myself and learn his name, Joe, and I suggest he come sit right next to me so he can hear, as I wonder silently what I will do with two hard-of-hearing men, if Robert arrives, too. Joe takes the seat at my left hand, closing in on me with a question in his rheumy eyes.
It turns out Joe is the person I spoke with by telephone a few days before, when he asked if he could join the class even though it was already underway. I had pegged him to be maybe in his early sixties, but I undershot by at least twenty years. As I unpack my handouts and water bottle, Joe tells me he is deaf in his left ear, but the hearing aid in the right does a fair job; likewise his left eye can see nothing but by happy coincidence I have directed him to the chair to my left, so he will, I hope, be able to both hear and see me.
He wants me to know more: He writes slowly. He has to leave five minutes early to walk the thirty-five yards along the library path to the parking lot where the senior citizen bus will be waiting. He recently had a mini-stroke and is always cold.
All the while I am responding with what I believe to be a polite demeanor, nodding and smiling (but only really listening with one ear myself), I am hoping that Robert will come back today; I think of Joe as a possible buddy for Robert, the way I used to point out men my father’s age around his neighborhood and urge him to introduce himself, which he never would do, the way I once scouted out playgrounds and sandboxes watching for potential playmates for my sons.
But Robert does not arrive, not that week or the next and final week, and in a way I am glad because how will I cope with two old men repeating themselves, me urging quiet during the writing exercise, waiting through the seconds while they form a question, tell an anecdote, precious class time falling away. Eventually, I will ask the librarian if she knows if Robert is okay, but she will say only that he hasn’t been in for a while. One day, weeks later, I will look for his name in the community phone book but I will not find it. Two years later, I will ask someone in town who seems to know everyone else over age eighty, and she will nod and say yeah, I remember him but I don’t know if he’s still around. But I am glad Robert is not there the first day Joe shows up. I am relieved. And then, I am sickened at my relief.
When, after ten minutes of presenting some tips for how writers of personal true stories might pry loose details from long-dormant memories, I ask if there are any questions, it is Joe who is the first to raise a hand, tautly wrinkled and bulgy with arthritis
“I would like to read something,” Joe says, his left hand smoothing the flat top page of the legal pad, which was empty when we began and is now three-quarters filled with deeply angled script.
I make the same mistake again, responding with my need, with what I think is important—maintaining order, being fair—and already I know I am wrong, but I cannot stop myself. In my head, I am talking to my father, explaining why I can’t drop everything and fly out to see him this Thanksgiving, this Christmas, because my husband has a family, too, because I have only limited days off work, because finances are tight, because, because.
“We always have some time at the end of class for several people to read, so will you hold on to it till then?” I ask. Only I don’t really ask, I tell, and of course I expect that Joe will quietly nod and smile and say he understands. Only he does not nod and smile, only nods and is then quiet, and before I look away toward Angela, whose hand is in air, I see something in Joe’s gaze, something in the way his right hand leaves the air and scratches his temple, which saddens me.
Forty-five minutes later, when it is time for those who wish to read to do so, Joe does not volunteer to read. He’s had trouble following the verbal instructions for the writing exercise and with writing his responses (even with the magnifying glass he has brought along). In my rush to accomplish all I have on my outline that day, I allow Emily to read first, and I neglect to turn to Joe, to pause, to consider his need, and to say now’s a good time, would you like to read now? before he stands, adjusts his walker and begins the journey to the senior bus.
That night, my husband and I are driving somewhere alone together. I try to explain why Joe, and before him, Robert, cause me so much worry, consternation, guilt. Why I cannot seem to get either of them to play by the rules, how I probably will not ever be able to help them as writers if they won’t at least try to do things as I wish.
“I guess I’m just not cut out to teach senior citizens,” I say.
“It’s not that. I think you just see your father every time you look at them, and you miss him,” says my husband. “You could never teach him a blessed thing either. Remember? How he always had to be right, about everything?”
My husband is right. But I am still wrong. There is so much to learn, but the old men, the ones who follow me, are teaching me, about feeling younger, and what we owe those who are truly old, and what we shouldn’t try to repay, and about the difference between feeling old and watching someone else grow truly old.
The old men are not really following me; they were there all along, but I see them now. I recoil from their beseeching gaze. I move toward it.