My mother or father suggested I draw a logo for brand new Tain Lee Chow, the kosher Chinese restaurant they were about to open, something they could put on their menu and on their sign. I did a few drawings of a comical dragon, it had a lot of personality and was unique, idiosyncratic. My mother laughed, I’m pretty sure, when she saw it.
The face was fairly cute, it was a playful Chinese dragon trying to be fierce but posing no real threat, but like I say, it was idiosyncratic. My mother probably laughed because the thing was cute and it was also very much one of my drawings, that is to say, there was also something a little disturbing about the expression on the dragon’s face.
“Well,” said the skeleton, “you came by those things honestly, cute and disturbing” and he made a self-effacing gesture toward himself.
You were certainly both of those things. Anyway, you two took the drawing to your partner Benjy. The verdict was Benjy didn’t like it and you used some generic clip-art dragon, or I don’t even remember what. Outside of Benjy’s creative and whimsical names for dishes — “My Bashaert”, described as “the perfect marriage of beef and chicken” was a favorite– the take out menu and sign for the successful restaurant were as generic as those of any Chinese restaurant.
“Well, Benjy was the businessman, none of us knew anything about branding, marketing, trade design, that kind of thing. Neither did you, ” said the skeleton. “You want to make this about mom and me once again not taking your side, preferring our surrogate son Benjy to you, respecting his arbitrary judgment and crude tastes more than your’s, but that’s not a fair version of this story.
“Your dragon was, how did that hack at that on-line rag describe your ‘beautifully written’ story about mom– the one he was going to pay for then decided not to publish– ‘too personal, somehow’. It was a beautiful drawing but not right for Tain Lee Chow, a small business we’d invested a lot of money in, trying to get off the ground and succeed, that was it. It was strictly a business decision and we deferred to the business manager.”
I’m aware of all that, obviously. I’m bringing this up because I noticed, in the eulogy, that the part about your surrogate son Benjy reads:
With a partner he met at Tel Yehuda he opened the first Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant in Queens. He ran “Tain Lee Chow” for several years with his partner and a Chinese chef, named, coincidentally, Mr. Chow.
“Wow,” said the skeleton, “I didn’t notice that as they were burying me. I was a bit preoccupied, I suppose, but that’s… wow, like those guys from the new regime who went into the tomb of the deposed Pharaoh and scraped his face off the walls, off history, erasing him and his line from eternity. Sonny Chow gets in there, but not Benjy, a very nice touch. That’s some good work, Elie.”
I hadn’t evolved enough by then to understand how much it would have meant to Benjy, standing by the grave grieving for a person he loved, to have heard his name mentioned as your partner and lifelong friend. Here’s how I should have written it:
With Benjy, their lifelong friend from Tel Yehuda, he and Evelyn opened the first Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant in Queens. He and Benjy ran “Tain Lee Chow” for several years, Irv working in the kitchen with the smiling Chinese chef, a man named, coincidentally, Mr. Chow. Irv always smelled like Chinese noodles in those days, it was one of his jobs to fry them.
“Yeah, that would have been a more gracious and accurate way to put it, sure. But, don’t forget, you were burying your difficult father, making the arrangements, suddenly the man of the family, and you worked to get the draft of the eulogy to the Druid in time for the funeral, a funeral that was only a few days after I died and 1,200 miles away. You can’t beat yourself up, Elie, I’m sure even if you ran it by mom first, she probably wouldn’t have even caught it, at that time,” said the skeleton.
I don’t beat myself up. I’ve learned not to do that, and it was the best lesson I ever struggled to learn. I’ve sometimes wished you could have taught yourself the same thing. I just understand now, as I am different by years of experience from how I was when I erased Benjy’s face from your life, that, if I ever have it to do over again, it is better to think of how to be generous than to be a thoughtless dick. No matter how justified I might otherwise have been to have acted less than generously.
“Point taken,” said the skeleton, “even though, you know, we disagree about how much a person can really change their nature. I mean, I’m dead, so, sure, I’ve changed. But outside of that, good luck.”
When I came down the hill after we buried you I said to Benjy, as we shook hands, “you were the son he never had” and he looked at me with great sadness and said “and he was the father I never had.” That was as far as either of us knew how to go, I guess, and it had to be enough.
“It was enough,” said the skeleton.
I woke up from a bizarre dream today thinking about something Immanuel Kant said. “A human soul is of infinite worth,” and then the logical second part came to me “even though they are sold by the millions, wholesale, in the free market.”
“The soul of that little kitten who screamed when he was murdered the other night was of infinite worth. The million children’s souls that went up the smokestacks in Poland were of infinite worth. The soul of every Iraqi child incinerated or exploded in the fight to free Iraq from a ‘modern day Hitler’ was of infinite worth. The people who trade in human souls just never got Kant’s memo, I guess,” said the skeleton.
If you see God there in the afterlife, ask him about that, would you?
“Glad to see you still have a sense of humor, motherfucker,” said the skeleton with what he intended to be a wink.