Bill Kahn convinced me to join the Retirement Scouts. After he left the Federal Trade Commission, he drove Mona up a tree till he found them. He was skeptical at first, he admitted, but he’d needed to get out of the house, and now he liked having structured time. He enjoyed the activities. Learning new skills, meeting new people.
“And it’s a good group,” he added. “Very diverse.”
I should have known. This was, after all, Northwest Washington. The troop was equal parts Jewish and WASP, plus three black men and an Ecuadorean ex-World Banker. Two gay men, eighteen straight. All of us wore wedding rings.
The Scout leader, Mike, was in his late twenties and in the same college class as my son. He had rough, irritated skin beneath his jaw and a starter gut tucked into his flannel. In addition to leading our troop, he drove for Lyft and baked wood-fired pizzas at Timber, but he promised he liked this job best.
“No kidding,” I said, and he screwed up his eyes at me, hurt.
The Retirement Scouts could earn badges—Community Service, Camp Craft, Technology—but had no special outfits to pin them on. No sashes, no short-shorts, no hats. Most of us wore ancient polo shirts, the kind that once served for casual Fridays and in which we now mowed our lawns. I asked whether we went on excursions, and Mike pressed his hands together.
“We’re going to Shenandoah for three days in July,” he said.
“Sleeping in tents?”
The room rumbled with laughter. Bill turned to me. “Saul, this is Retirement Scouts. Lumbar support’s a priority here.”
In Australia, towns have men’s sheds. A retired man can spend eight hours a day in his local shed if he likes, working wood or watching races, shooting pool or honing his backgammon game. He can treat it like an office. In America, we only get Retirement Scouts twice a week.
Our troop met on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We rented a vinyl-walled clubhouse in Crestwood to which Mike brought ginger ale, cut celery, and Costco cheese balls. He organized discussions and what he called skill-shares. At my first meeting, Carl, a former chef, showed us how to julienne radishes. At my second, a onetime English teacher named Frazier led a book club on Edward P. Jones. After my third, I pulled Mike aside on the clubhouse’s mole-eaten lawn and told him opinion journalism didn’t involve many shareable skills, and might in fact require no skill at all, but that if he’d be willing to book us some tennis courts, I’d be glad to teach the Scouts how to serve.
It was good to create new routines. Fit my mind to a world bigger than myself, but smaller than the endless stream of stupidity and evil on Twitter and Politico, in the Times and on cable, in the Pew and Gallup polls I still consulted daily, though joining Scouts helped me check them less. On Scouts nights, I fretted less about Trump. I worried less about my children, who hadn’t spoken to each other in sixteen months. No one in my troop knew that. No one but Bill, who’d been my friend since the Whitewater scandal and was far too tactful to mention my kids.
The first time Mike scheduled Respectful Political Discourse, Bill called to offer me a ride to Scouts, though my house in Tenleytown was a full two neighborhoods out of his way. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “I won’t skip.”
“Sure,” I lied. I had intended to fake sick, but I showed up, properly shamed, and accepted my xeroxed article packet like everyone else. There was opinion writing inside it, but to Mike’s credit and my great relief, none of the columns included were mine.
The day’s topic was gun control. The discourse—again, this was Northwest Washington—was minimal. “Need it,” we said, one by one. “The NRA’s hijacked the country. What’s happened in Congress is a disgrace.” Felipe, the ex-World Banker, offered us as a nation his condolences for the schoolchildren we’d lost. Bill suggested mildly that gun control should extend to the militarized police, and Teddy, who had spent his career as a United States marshal, was the first one to agree.
It felt good to sit in so much agreement. Good not to be scolded by my wife and daughter for views that weren’t progressive enough. What’s more progressive than no guns? After the Parkland massacre, I cranked out the same column as all the other center-left hacks, and got an inbox of bile for my trouble. Buy a gun and shoot yourself. Rot in Jew hell.
“Saul,” Mike was saying. “Come in, Saul.”
I shook myself back to the clubhouse. My ass hurt in the plastic chair. The room smelled like Lysol and powdered cheese. Over the slow thock of the brown-bladed ceiling fan, Mike said, “Maybe that’s enough politics for one day.”
After the meeting, Felipe invited the troop to his house for a drink. We checked watches and called spouses, which shrank the group down to Felipe, Bill, Perry, Greg, and me. We followed each other to Felipe’s, two Honda hybrids behind his Mercedes, then my Prius, then Greg’s BMW. In my speakers, Johnny Cash sang, Well, my daddy left home when I was three, / and he didn’t leave much for Ma and me. When Kathryn was pregnant with our first child, Luke, I suggested, as a joke, that we name the baby Sue. As a tribute to Johnny, I said.
She lifted an eyebrow. So how about we name him John?
It didn’t matter. Luke hated his name. He was currently in the process of a legal change, to Lev. Lev Epstein. Rabbi Lev. In my wallet, I carried a picture of the future Lev at his bar mitzvah, sullen beneath a puffed yarmulke. Now he bobby-pinned his yarmulkes to his hair and covered them with black hats. He wore black suits and ritual fringes. He refused to shake hands with women. He only came home once a year.
I parked outside Felipe’s house, which was brick and tremendous, with a wrought-iron fence and immaculate rose bushes along its walls. “Gardening badge,” he said when he saw me looking at the flowers. “Pretty good, no?”
I pinched a yellow petal. “Not bad.”
“Herbs and tomatoes, but the deer won’t leave them be.”
Perry, behind me, clicked his tongue. “It’s unbelievable. Right in the middle of the city. Last year I bought fox piss and poured it all over my tomato plants.”
“Did it work?”
He shook his bald head. “The deer ate every single one.”
In Felipe’s living room, we drank Macallan and talked about the president. “He’s the reason I retired,” I said. “For a full year, I wrote a column every week asking—begging—the country not to elect him. Now I’ve got nothing to say.”
Felipe shifted forward. The back of his leather chair sagged where he’d been settled into it. “You don’t want to expose him?”
“I was an opinion writer, not a reporter. All I did was argue. And besides, what’s left to expose?”
Bill, on the couch next to me, nodded. “The whole country knows he’s a racist.”
“Whole country knows he hates women,” Perry agreed.
Greg wriggled his eyebrows. “Or likes them too much.”
“Likes them the wrong way,” Bill—ever the peacemaker—suggested, and we moved smoothly on.
Felipe’s daughter Mariana roamed in and introduced herself, then poured a glass of scotch and left. Felipe didn’t bat an eye, though she looked no more than sixteen. We all had children, but the rest were grown and gone: mine in New York, Bill’s daughter Steffie in Baltimore, the rest scattered across the country or around the globe. Perry told us his son had recently entered the Peace Corps, and—this with a glance at Felipe—would depart for Ecuador next month.
Felipe let out a low rumble of a laugh. “How generous.”
“He’s got a good sense of the situation,” Perry said.
“Meaning he knows he’s going at least partly for his own benefit.”
Felipe laughed again, kindly this time. “He’ll love it. Ecuador is a beautiful country.” He lifted his chin toward the gelatin prints above his mantel. A river wound through them, bright as mercury. “My oldest took those. Carolina.”
“She’s a photographer?” Bill asked.
“And a good one.” Felipe sighed. “She lives in Riobamba now, with my wife’s parents. We’d move back, too, but Mariana won’t leave Visitation.”
From the next room, she called, “No, I won’t.”
Felipe twisted his face in mock sorrow. We raised our glasses in paternal solidarity, a toast to the tribe of the put-upon dad. The room was warm with whisky fumes and the perfumed remains of French candles. Greg began talking about his kids, a pair of twins both serving in the Marines. I listened and nodded, holding my envy at bay. Kathryn would tell me not to be jealous. To talk about our children. At least tell your friends about Lena, she’d suggest. Tell them how proud we are of her work.
Once, Lev was proud of Lena, too. They were best friends. Doubles partners. Lena, two years younger, followed her brother to Harvard, then New York. Kathryn tried suggesting we move, too, to be closer to the kids, but the kids never saw each other. Lev discovered Hasidism his first year in Brooklyn. By the time Lena arrived, he wasn’t willing to set foot in the apartment she rented with her non-Jewish boyfriend. When Lena and Rafi broke up last year, she asked me to tell my son he’d wrecked two relationships. Me and Rafi, she said, and me and Luke.
I had no need to talk about my children. I took a last drink of my scotch and kept my mouth shut.