“Here’s a riddle for you, Batman,” said the skeleton. “How do you immediately know who you are actually dealing with in the world? Tabula Raza steps up to you, extends his hand, says it’s nice to meet you. Is there any way to get an instant bead on the essence of this smiling yet possibly dangerous type and be on a sturdy footing before they try to get the first shot in?”
I have to say, that’s a hell of a riddle, dad.
“You seem to think you can meet everyone with an open face, Elie, and extend the benefit of the doubt– or at least you profess to operate that way, however ungracious your actual judgments may actually be in the moment– and that pretty much any two people in the world can get along, at least to the limited extent of helping each other in an emergency.”
Well, I don’t picture Vasily, the drunken Ukrainian reptile, deputized by the local SS, the fellow who shot the pregnant woman’s baby and then shot her in the stomach, in that category, if that’s what you mean. There are plenty of filthy, banal bastards, filled with rage, hating themselves, capable of anything.
“No, obviously. Vasily the Reptile finds himself in an in extremis situation and his worst nature takes wing. When people are given leave to legally kill their fellow humans all bets are off. I’m talking about people in polite, everyday society, you meet your girlfriend’s father for the first time. Or, less fraught, you meet a new classmate at a school mixer where everyone is being introduced to everyone else.”
Not that I’ve ever been to a school mixer, but the obvious question is why do I give a crap one way or another about the character of this new classmate at a school mixer, beyond saying hello and seeing what he or she has to say?
“Obvious question to a person who is not born with a boot on his throat, maybe. Although, in many ways, you can still see the mark where my boot rested on your tiny throat. Maybe you got lucky, Elie, seriously, in a way I never could. I never went into a situation without immediately sizing up who I could take and who could take me. Those who I figured could take me, I knew immediately I’d have to work my way around. I had a menu of techniques to neutralize the dangers in such situations.”
Wait, are you saying you were completely insane?
“There’s nothing insane about him!” shouted another skeleton, clearly beyond bearing any more of my casual attitude of mutuality with my father.
This can’t be happening, I recall thinking.
“You know, Elie, I think most people are keenly aware of the vicious, competitive nature of this dangerous world. In many ways it really is a zero sum game, what I want to have I need to get before you can grab it,” said the skeleton of my father.
“A zero sum game, son of a bitch!” called the other skeleton.
Tell me this can’t be happening, I remember thinking, though I have no idea who I was appealing to.
“Your higher nature, maybe?” suggested the other skeleton in a tone I resented very much.
Listen, dad, we’ll have to continue this another time. I don’t have an answer to this odd riddle and I don’t feel like explaining to the local police why I am kicking down gravestones in this quiet country cemetery.
“You’re not talking about my gravestone, I know that,” said the skeleton of my father.
No, of course not, dad, why would I kick that gravestone? But I have to tell you, that other bastard is really getting on my nerves.
“He got on everybody’s nerves,” said the skeleton of my father, as I waved goodbye and made my way up the rest of the hill to Oregon Road, the road on which people drove back from the well-protected concert where Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and, famously Paul Robeson, had performed. Workers had organized a guard of more than ten thousand men, shoulder to shoulder, guarding the concert grounds. There were no incidents at the concert.
It was along this quiet two-lane road that rolls a few steps up from where my father is buried, after the show, that their cars were ambushed, windows smashed, some overturned, by Westchester Klansmen in the fall of 1949, while the State Police, and the local police, smiled, and chewed tobacco.