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MICHAEL DAHLIE

RETIREMENT

It was a gratifying occasion despite Elizabeth's absence, I thought as I sipped my coffee at King's Diner one morning last April. It was not without its difficulties, but still, generally speaking, it was a gratifying occasion. I was not happy that I had to give a speech, especially because Albert was there and I have always hated giving speeches in Albert's presence. Albert has always pretended not to know that I hate to give speeches in front of him, although he must know because he knows, despite my airs, that I hate him. At a function where I do not have to give a speech, I can tolerate Albert's presence because he is easy to disregard and generally not well liked by most people. In fact, I share my dislike for Albert with a number of people as I also share my dislike for giving speeches in Albert's presence with a number of people, some of whom are experienced speakers and are normally quite relaxed while giving speeches, even when important guests are present. Richard, whom I sat next to at the affair, once gave a speech in front of the governor and I was there and noticed not a trace of apprehension. The following week, when he gave the same speech to the Lincoln City Rotary Club, of which he was the treasurer, he was extremely anxious because Albert was there. If it were me, I would have refused to have given that speech and would have provided no other grounds than Albert's presence, which everyone would have immediately understood. But I was obliged to give a speech on this occasion because it was my retirement party, and, Albert or no Albert, you are always obliged to give a speech at your retirement party, especially a party as large and unusually ceremonious as the one that was thrown for me. To be honest, while I have never really minded giving speeches, except, of course, in Albert's presence, I have also never particularly liked it. In my opinion, nothing worthwhile has ever been said in a speech, and I am the first to acknowledge that I, too, have never said one important thing in any speech I have ever given. Nevertheless, people applaud me as though I have just said something magnificent, and I always applaud other speakers as though they have just said something magnificent, which is the way most ceremonies work and has nothing whatsoever to do with what anyone says. Most people do not listen to one word of any speech they may be present for. Most people do not listen to one word of anything, or understand one word of what they read, and, again, I am not excluding myself from this category, although at times I have understood speeches and books perfectly, but only rarely. Nevertheless, even my small number of moments of perfect listening and understanding is more than most people experience because most people go through their entire lives hearing nothing. Albert is one such person, although his deafness is especially annoying because of his outbursts. He has never not made an outburst during a speech and, as I expected, he made one during my speech, although not one person laughed and although not one person has ever laughed at one of Albert's outbursts for twenty years. Richard claimed one time when we were sitting in a park that Albert's behavior was inexcusable because he knew better. Richard said that he could tolerate the outbursts of Roland, the son of a friend of ours, because he was insane and people who suffer from insanity do not know any better because they live in their own world. True, I said to Richard, Roland, the son of our friend, lives in his own world, but this is not true for all people who suffer from insanity, I said. On the one hand, insanity is for the insane and the insane live in their own world. But, in other instances, insanity affects the sane, and the sane, even if they suffer from insanity, always live in our world. It is evident to them, I said, that they are in our world, but they also suffer from insanity and know that they are being affected by something which is not of our world. That is when insanity is tragic, I said. If insanity were always an issue of going to a different world and behaving and living according to the rules of the other world, then insanity would not be tragic. Even if the insane person were dangerous and had to be locked up, it would not be tragic because he would always be living in his own insane world. Insanity is tragic only when it affects the sane because the sane are fully aware that they are in our world but are also conscious of the fact that they can no longer live in it, I said. Richard nodded and agreed with me. Elizabeth was sane, as sane as any person I ever knew, but she suffered from insanity and her life was tragic. She never made any outbursts and was always perfectly behaved as though insanity had never once touched her life. But that is the worst kind of insanity, the kind of insanity without outbursts, because that sort of insanity can be hidden from others, which always has tragic consequences. Albert was without insanity, as Richard had correctly pointed out as we talked on the park bench, and that is what made his outbursts so unforgivable. However, he always made an outburst despite the fact that they were unforgivable, because no one ever said anything to him. Twenty years ago, when Albert started making his outbursts, someone said Just ignore him, and since then everyone has ignored him and repeated the advice to just ignore him. The fact is, however, that no one could ignore him because his comments were so completely annoying that no one could talk about anything else after a speech had ended. By ignore we meant not to say anything to him or force him to stop, which is, in fact, not at all the true definition of ignore, which would mean to force him out of our minds. Albert stuck in our minds. He stuck in our minds so much that even when he was not making outbursts he was still obnoxious and this is what annoyed me at my retirement celebration because I could think about nothing but my speech and Albert's outburst for the entire evening. Richard was also anxious and told me so as we sat together. He said that he had wanted to exclude Albert from the entire event but that the rules prevented it and then he said that the rule makers didn't know Albert when they were writing the rules. Richard was, in fact, more nervous than I, which was typical of Richard because he was generally a more anxious person than myself, and, also, because he was a good friend and wanted my retirement party to be a success. Richard had always been a good friend and worried about my welfare. He had organized the retirement celebration, which was not the first time that he had organized a party in my honor, and, I heard from another friend, Richard said a few words to Albert about his outbursts, but, as usual, Albert paid no attention to anything but his own desires and, despite Richard's attempts to stop him, made an outburst. The only person that might have been able to stop Albert from making an outburst during my speech was Elizabeth, who had an almost magical ability to convince people to do what she wanted. She could use her magical ability on anyone, and I'm sure that if she had been at the celebration she could have stopped Albert from making his outburst simply by talking to him. When Elizabeth demanded something, it was impossible not to do it, and this is what everyone always said about Elizabeth, who was extremely influential. Had Elizabeth been at my retirement party, everything would have transpired much more smoothly. This, of course, is not only because she could have prevented Albert from making an outburst, but also because she always made everything happen smoothly, although I could not think of one thing that went wrong at the affair besides Albert's outburst. Generally, however, my retirement party would have progressed more smoothly if Elizabeth had been there. Richard, in fact, said the same thing as we sat next to each other during the celebration. He said, if only Elizabeth were here, then this would be a real celebration. I was thinking the same thing, I said, if only Elizabeth were here. But Elizabeth was not there. Still, it was a nice celebration, not including the problems caused by Albert. But aside from the problems that Albert caused, he was also generally and thoroughly dislikable, and this was not just my opinion, that is, it is not that I found him dislikable but that he was actually dislikable. I can say this because I knew no one who liked him, but also because after examining his character for as long as I have, I know him to be dislikable in his essence. The only sympathetic feeling that one could have towards Albert was pity, and this for the sole reason that his wife had died when she and he were young. This does not make him likable. It only makes one pity Albert that such an unfortunate event had occurred and so radically altered his character. But the fact that his character was altered by his wife's death is my opinion. There are others who say that Albert has always been rotten, and while this may be true it is my opinion that the death of his wife has had the most to do with his later and more intense rottenness. Even if her death did not alter his character, he had to spend his life without his wife who certainly would have restrained him from making his outbursts. I was fortunate enough to live my life with my wife, Elizabeth, although I no longer do, and I am positive that without her guidance there are many things that I would have done which I would now regret. Richard often said that I was lucky to have had a wife that could keep such tight control over me, or otherwise I would have long since been dead. You have a certain recklessness, Richard once said to me, and without your wife I'm very sure that you would not be alive today. As we sat together at my retirement party he said the same thing. He said that it was too bad Elizabeth was not present as it was she that was responsible for my even living to an age where I could actually retire from something. And this is why I pitied Albert because without such influence a man can turn into anything. At my age, my tendencies have already been developed, my character has been molded, and if I am likable now, I will always be likable, at least to the people who like me now, maybe not to younger people, and I have less need for a wife at my age. Growing old with someone is far less important than people think, and I feel content to grow old alone, although I certainly miss my wife and I especially missed her at my retirement party because, after all, and as Richard said, it was also a celebration of her work and her abilities in keeping me alive and in developing my positive tendencies, which is why it is more important to be young with someone than to be old with someone. Growing old alone is in fact not a problem for me at all, if by that is meant passing through a life stage alone. All the things that my wife provided for me when I was young I no longer need or desire at the life stage I am in now. I am, however, lonely from moment to moment. But I have always been lonely from moment to moment and my wife and even Richard were never able to alter that, despite their friendship which, although it was unable to save me from loneliness, I greatly valued. It was a pity that the two people whose friendship I valued most in my life were not present at my retirement party. Richard was there, of course, but Elizabeth was not, which was especially disappointing because of all my efforts to arrange for her to come, which was an enormous undertaking and something that I recognized as futile from the start but still attempted anyway. Richard did not let me dwell on Elizabeth's absence although he did mention to me that it was unfortunate that she was not there and spoke of her as if she were the same person that she used to be, which, of course, was not true at all, and so untrue that it was painful even to pretend, although that's exactly what I did when I said that Elizabeth could have stopped Albert's outbursts, which, at present and in the future, she could not. Nevertheless, knowing all this, I still wanted her to come to my retirement party despite the obvious difficulties and even the embarrassments. But this was an impossibility. Roland was in his own world, but Elizabeth was not, and although she still lived in our world, insanity attacked her to the point of debilitation so that while she was of the world of the sane, insanity made it impossible for her to live in it. But at least Richard was there because without him I certainly would not have lasted through the night, and it was Richard that gave me the confidence to give the speech that I had wanted to give, despite the fact that Albert was present and it was inevitable that he would make an outburst. Richard did not stop Albert from making an outburst because, realistically, that was not possible, but he was able to make me feel confident enough to give my speech, which, I have to say, went smoothly and drew great applause which I never cared about or thought much of. Still, I obviously prefer to make a speech that draws applause than to make a disastrous speech, to which people always pay scrupulous attention and retain every word. And despite Albert's outburst, I was warmly received after the speech and did not stumble once while giving it, and, on the whole, the entire occasion was very enjoyable.


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