I answer the ring of my cellphone, the cellphone for which only my wife has the number and, as usual, I can see that it isn't her on the other end of the line. There's a pause and the voice asks for my mother-in-law.
'You have the wrong number,' I say, delivering the familiar speech. 'This isn't her phone.'
I only have a cellphone for use in emergencies. It's registered to my mother-in-law because she signed up with some kind of esoteric plan whereby she gets her own phone at a cheaper rate if she has more than one.
'Maybe you can help me anyway,' the guy suggests. He asks if I'd like to make a charitable donation to a fund for cops because it's a very risky job. I'm a stranger in this country, by some definition, but I'm fairly sure cops are paid to be cops. For a country in which handouts or financial assistance of any description are seemingly regarded as the gateway drug for raging Communism, it's surprising just how often I am asked to give generously to people who already work for a living.
I hang up.
Next evening, we're at the school again. It's just parents, something which won't take long, but it's mandatory. Our boy has another few months before graduation, so we're here to find out about that and about the impending trip to Washington DC. The whole class will be going and they'll be staying in a hotel for the best part of the week, so there will be a lot of juggling involved. Unfortunately we're ten minutes late for the meeting because we stopped off to eat at the Greek place over by the Quarry. The Quarry is about a minute from the school, so we thought we had it all worked out, but our food took longer than anticipated to arrive.
Anyway, we're here now. We shuffle awkwardly amongst the folding chairs, trying not to be the annoying latecomers. The teacher is telling us about someone who will be acting as a chaperone on the school trip. We each need to give our child ten dollars in an envelope, and this money will constitute tips for the woman, a way of showing we're thankful for her hypothetically vigilant dispensation of justice when one of our precious little ones attempts to let off a fire extinguisher in a hotel corridor.
Personally, I'm confused.
Another woman steps up to speak. She's very excited about something, but I can't understand what she's saying. Her voice is way up in the Minnie Mouse register and her accent peppers whatever she is trying to tell us with additional syllables. I've lived in Texas for nearly six years, but I'm still not used to it. She speaks fast and it sounds like she's playing a Jew's harp. She delivers words resembling formal edicts punctuated with improvised twittering based around um and you know, over and over. I have a horrible feeling she's actually the mathematics teacher we met last time the school called us in for some parental event.
Everybody looks at the forms in their folders, apparently prompted by something our speaker has been explaining.
I guess it's just me then.
Fifteen minutes of this and it's over, and we're done, and we can leave. We shuffle from the room exchanging pleasantries with Duncan's mother, then Mr. and Mrs. Pace. They're the only parents I recognise.
'So who are we tipping again? Who needs our ten dollars?'
Bess tells me it's the woman with the voice of Minnie Mouse.
'The maths teacher? Does she not already get a wage?'
'She isn't a teacher. She's one of the parents. She always volunteers.'
'Oh - okay. That makes more sense, I guess.'
I feel a little guilty for my uncharitable sentiments.
'I still couldn't understand a fucking word she said though.'
Maybe this is what it's like to be old.