“Well, look, Elie, it’s easy enough to be sociable and make friends if you have the tools. I had the tools: I had decent looks, you know, when I was younger, I was droll, I was well-read and could discuss current invents, I knew history, I followed sports. I was irreverent, engaging and plain-spoken, things that come off as charming and will make you seem interesting in a social setting,” said the skeleton.
“Plus, and this will strike you as funny, probably, but I had the most important qualities too, I was very sensitive and empathetic.”
I always realized you were sensitive, though the empathetic part is a little funny, of course. Even though I saw your empathy in action many times, just not toward us very often.
“Well, one can’t be everything to everyone,” said the skeleton. “But, on a deeper level, remaining mutual friends with somebody always requires a certain suspension of belief, on both sides, about the entire reality of the person you’re choosing to stay friends with. You know we are all admirable and despicable as human beings, and to your credit, recently, you try to focus on the admirable, whenever you’re not busy speaking ill. I feel it’s a losing game, in the long run, but I think it’s great that you’re trying to sustain this benevolent view of the flawed people in your life.”
Pater, I take your life as a graduate seminar in how to live my own life. If I learn nothing from the history of your troubled quest, I am doomed to repeat it. Do you hear me, there in your permanent dirt bed?
“Loud and clear, my son. Look, I understand what you’re trying to do. I already told you I admire the effort you’re putting in. Maybe you really have become a better person than I was ever capable of becoming. I hope so. Still, since you’re apparently giving me my say on this subject, I’ll say the following:
“It’s easy, as we have noted, for anyone with a little wit and just about any amount of native charm, to gather a group of friends in his life — everyone is constantly looking for friends, after all — providing he’s willing to be an actor and pretend, at times, that things are other than they actually are, fundamentally. My take, of course, is ultimately pessimistic– we can pretend all we want that we are actually intimately close to these loving people but if it comes down to the lifeboat after four or five days on a flat sea, these dear friends are looking around to see which of their closest friends is ripest for the picking.
“It’s like that great cartoon in Playboy, in one of the magazines I hid in that cabinet down in the basement that you were always so paranoid I’d find out you were intently inspecting. (What, did you really think that as I was poring over those fascinating articles in the basement bathroom that I’d be looking for forensic clues that my teenaged son had been poking around in those glossy mags?) Anyway, you remember the cartoon, obviously, on the lifeboat, all the scraggly survivors are perusing menus and the waiter, like Jeeves, in the impeccable tuxedo is standing attentively by, towel on his forearm, poised to take their orders and the guy asks the waiter “how is the cabin boy prepared?’
“No matter how highly you think of them, if you are brutally honest, you can see the faces of your friends who would be the last ones alive on that drifting lifeboat. Most of them would, to their credit, be chagrined as they chewed their ceviche d’Eliot but only the most noble of them would hesitate, if they had to eat you to survive, before tucking into your sashimi. Some would be elbowing the others out of the way to get their share, it’s human nature, the same thing that allows us to march off in columns chanting and slashing with broad swords.
“And I say this as a compliment, you probably would be about the last person on that lifeboat to dig in. I don’t think you’d ever have the heart to eat, for example, Sekhnet sashimi, even to preserve your life. I mean, we can never really know what we’d do in that situation, of course, until we’re in that boat. But I think, if we polled your friends, they’d agree, you wouldn’t be elbowing your way to the trough, you’d take a lot of coaxing before you’d consider eating the dead Sekhnet just to stay alive.
“They might finally marshal enough arguments (assuming there was more than enough to go around), ‘look, she died of a heart attack, she’s already dead, she’s going to putrefy anyway, there aren’t enough of us to finish her before the sea vultures and sharks start swooping in, waste not want not, it’s a sin to waste food, she’d want you to eat her, think of how exceedingly generous she always was, she’d be happy that you lived on because of her, she’s actually quite delicious,’ and they might convince you in the end, but you’d be crying as you ate, and certainly not fighting any one for her scraps.”
Maybe so. Though it doesn’t make me a better person than any of them, just more squeamish about where I draw the line.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” said the skeleton.
I had good friends you always despised because you considered them slick charmingly insincere self-promoters. or morally deficient in some other way. You predicted they’d do very well, materially, and even feel guilty when certain facts of their lives were presented too openly, and you dismissed them as human beings. Already judged and found guilty for their future adult selves, even at nine, thirteen or fourteen. It always shocked me a little.
“Well, you’ve done the same yourself since then, made the same judgments I did. It’s only where you are experientially at that point in your life that allows you to see certain things. I’d seen these guilty avowedly liberal types many times over by the time I was an adult, people who could literally exploit slave labor and enjoy prostitutes, young boys, whatever the insupportable vice, and then be disarmingly guilty and philosophical about it when confronted.
“Guys like Thomas Jefferson, to this day one of history’s most beloved and gifted spokesmen for freedom and human equality. Don’t you think the Author of Liberty would blush to the roots of his red hair to be told, plainly, what a despicable fucking hypocrite he was, along with what an undeniably eloquent, beloved opponent of tyranny and slavery in all its forms? He’d probably dash right out to the stables for a vigorous ride, return with the horse bloody and wild-eyed, his slave groom calming the hysterical animal, as every one of his biographers seems to have noted about the Sage of Monticello, our gentlest, wisest founding father.”
Don’t get me started on the fucking Author of Liberty, dad. But you know the funny thing, you’d probably have been friends with him if you were a Virginian back then.
“Yeah, maybe. If I wasn’t, say, a Negro,” said the skeleton. “On the other hand, manumitted Negroes were not allowed in Virginia a day beyond the one year anniversary of their manumission, so I couldn’t have actually been a Virginian and a Negro back then anyway, except during that short window, which would have been too quick to have become real friends with the famously cool Mr. Jefferson. It took him years to form his lifelong friendships.
“Look, I know you’re better off loving a warm, humanistic, well-read, thoughtful, funny person, instead of despising them because they may also be, of necessity, a slightly insincere self-promoter, or even a complete hypocrite. Better to love a very lovable guy, even as you realize his lucrative livelihood, even if motivated by the highest ideals, is a bit… well, you wouldn’t want to do it.”
Or we can just say “judge not, lest you be judged” or whatever that phrase was.
“Who said that? Jesus, the imaginary messiah of the eternally warring Christian sects?” said the skeleton.
I have no idea. I can recall, word for word, five hundred jingles and TV theme songs from childhood, but I couldn’t give you a single accurate Shakespeare quote or even one of my favorite proverbs.
“Well, that’s just one more reason why Donald Rump is going to be the next president of these Untied States,” said the skeleton. “Hah, it’s funny, that still looks like a typo, even though I said, and meant ‘untied’.”
Hitlerious, dad. I’m outta here, yo.