My father had a habit of puckishly placing people in uncomfortable situations. It was more of a hobby, I suppose, motivated by his enjoyment of seeing people off-balance. He would sometimes do this by making a cheerful, apparently friendly introduction in a social setting, quickly setting the stage for lingering awkwardness, then walking off chuckling to himself as his victims began to struggle.
Once, when I was about eighteen, he introduced me to the strong-willed, talkative mother of a friend of their’s, a woman I’d met many times over the years. He generally avoided this woman and had mentioned to me how unbearable it was to sit next to her for any extended period of time. He introduced us at one social occasion as though she and I had never met, and made us each sound fascinating to the other. He timed the intro for a moment before dinner was served, ensuring that I would be seated at dinner next to this long-winded woman he disliked. I can still see his satisfied smile as he walked down to the other end of the table and left me at her mercy for the next few hours, peering over from time to time during the long meal to see the look on my face and enjoy his handiwork.
The introduction I remember best, and my father did it more than once, at a wedding, or bar mitzvah, usually, was the one he did for Cousin Dave and me. Dave was his smiling first cousin, a man with a beaming smile my father referred to as beatific or Cheshire Cat, both apt. Dave was Nechama’s little brother, the kid with the eidetic memory who would speed read a text book and then just have to pull up the appropriate page in his memory during an exam and read it, which he apparently did with the ease of scrolling through microfiche.
I’d never seen a demonstration of Dave’s photographic memory, but it made sense. He’d been in intelligence in the army, which in itself means little, but he’d also obtained a law degree, easily passed the bar and, without ever practicing law and starting with very little capital, became very rich. I heard he had parachuted into some South American jungle at one point and emerged with a huge supply of some mineral, perhaps uranium, that soon became fantastically valuable. When I knew him he owned a bank, as well as a gigantic mansion in Deal, New Jersey and a luxury pied a terre on Fifth Avenue in New York City. He later picked up a fabulous apartment overlooking the beach at the Jersey shore.
“Hey, Elie,” my father would say cheerfully over by a table of hors d’oeuvres, “this is your cousin Dave. Ask him how he reconciles owning a bank and being a lifelong Communist.” Then he would sort of dance off and disappear into the crowd, leaving Dave and me to exchange facial expressions resembling those worn by babies with gas.
The fact was, Dave had remained a lifelong leftist, as far as I knew. I was a long-haired teenager at the time of those introductions and like many young people, particularly in the early 1970s when the wind seemed to still be blowing toward change and social justice, I believed in justice and equality. Something insisted to many of us that in the wealthiest nation the world has ever known children should not go to bed hungry, infant mortality rates in poor areas should not be as high as in third world nations, our prisons should not be filled with poor people, polluting corporations should not be allowed to poison the air, water and earth itself so they could maximize their already unlimited profits, people should not be persecuted because of their ethnicity, their beliefs, how they looked. These idealistic notions motivated a young person in those days to believe we could stop war, clean up the planet, redress centuries of persecution and brutal unfairness.
“Please, Elie,” said the skeleton, “I’m trying to conduct myself with some modicum of dignity here. It would be unbecoming if I had a laughing fit right now, especially about something so sad.”
In fact, if my father had started an actual conversation between David and me, and stayed around to add his own contributions to the discussion, the three of us could have had an interesting talk. Dave was bright and friendly and ready to discuss big ideas. But that was not Irv’s way, he preferred the hit and run style he practiced– set ’em up, step back and watch ’em wobble.
I don’t know much more about Dave. His second and last marriage was to a young Brazilian beauty many years younger than he was, from a wealthy cattle ranching family. I recall seeing a photo of a strapping younger Dave and the pretty girl he was standing next to, around the time they met. It was on the wall of one of their homes. I noticed that she had perfect little breasts in those days, and they peeked out, unrestrained, from under a soft, clingy shirt that really caught the warm South American light perfectly.
“And that photo was taken years before her first plastic surgery,” said the skeleton.
“As rich as Dave was, he never turned the air conditioner on, until somebody would complain. You never outgrow the Depression. He had so much money, but he lived in dread of a high electricity bill if he ran the air conditioner,” my father told me.
I am inclined today, as my father long was, to simply give up on the human race, on the insignificant prey animals who rose to the top of the food chain, who do not hesitate to grab more than they can use and wink at, or even commit, bloody murder to get what we want. We have our ideals, the things we deeply believe are right, and we make our daily accommodations to whatever we have to do in order to live as comfortably as we can. It is all I can do most days to avoid ranting in circles in this horrific loop — our potential to be creative, and merciful, versus what most of us are forced to do in our largely mercy-free Free Market Society. I can only avoid that today by stopping this typing right now.
Though, at the same time, I know that’s impossible. I’m like the guy who once hit a ball high over a wall who stands in the batter’s box dreaming of that ball’s flight and the ease and grace of my one-time swing. That I am now more like the creaky ninety-nine year old Ty Cobb does nothing to diminish that dream.
“Very nice,” said the skeleton, “that little graf is a perfect reminder of why they put a delete key on the computer keyboard. Go outside and take a walk, would you? If you put on enough sunscreen the sun won’t kill you. Have a nice day!”