Slim and I, entering, after Brother-in-law answered the door,
found ourselves places to sit.
For reasons possibly having to do with unconscious fears, I preferred the chair just inside the door, right next to it. Slim usually sat on the opposite side of the intimate living room, or somewhere in the middle, sometimes, to my right or my left.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" Gary asked.
We both said, "Yes."
After handing me a weak concoction of instant-smelling stuff in a pastel blue plastic tea cup, Brother-in-law took a seat in the chair to my left and fiddled with his pipe and a pouch of Half & Half tobacco, exchanging comments with Slim about things pertaining to the mundane logistics of their relationship. A girlie magazine cover briefly attracted my attention.
Brother-in-law announced, very excitedly, "Kerry, I want to find out if the pen really is mightier than the sword!" Such were his opening words, and it was immediately obvious that this would be one of his days of striding about the room. "Do you agree that it is?"
"Yes. I was just thinking the other day that many people probably resort to violence because they lack the ability with words to express their anger any other way."
"Excellent! And do you think that if your life depended on it you could articulate the anger of others, of people who are more oppressed than you?"
"Wonderful! Then we shall find out which is mightier -- the written word, or the force of arms."
"Have you ever seen a copy of the Diego Rivera painting called 'The Scream'?" Another of those questions.
"I'll tell you what I fear as a writer," I responded. "It is the people like Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, the people who miss the point of what you write, by taking it too literally or not literally enough, use it to justify actions you aren't actually recommending. Ivan Karamazov wrote an essay arguing that since there is no God there can be no crime, and Smerdyakov, his bastard brother, read it and murdered their father. Then later on he confessed to Ivan and said, 'But Brother, it was your idea!' Knowing that there will always be people like that, somewhere, reading what I have written, terrifies me."
"Yes, well, the author was trying to put across the idea that people need to believe in God whether or not there is a God, because otherwise they would become criminals -- that if God didn't exist, then it would be necessary to invent Him," Brother-in-law explained.
"I understand that, but it's rot. Robert Ingersoll refuted that notion magnificently in his writings, and also by the example of his own life. On the other hand, more murders and tortures have been committed in the name of God than for any other reason."
That Brother-in-law would frequently bring up things that seemed related to nothing whatsoever was something I found peevishly irritating. "Have you ever noticed how a saxophone works, Kerry? It is a very complicated instrument. You have to be extremely physically coordinated, and that takes considerable practice and skill. Yet it is something that can be learned."
Then he added that agents in the intelligence community could use similar techniques for conveying data upward in a bureaucracy in such a way as to manipulate their superiors on different sides of a conflict -- "just like working a saxophone. Especially double and triple agents can use it, deciding which information to give which boss, and thereby influencing men in power from a position below them."
Another thing he said was, "You know, Kerry, many of the people that serve as espionage agents are not doing it by choice; they are being forced to work against their will by means of extortion -- including people who work for our government!"
I explained that I was aware of that much. I had seen a movie based on a true story starring Ernest Borgnine called Man on a String where an American of foreign descent was forced to return to the old country on a "vacation" and spy for the U.S.
"Kerry, have you ever heard the story about the little Dutch boy -- the one who saved Holland by plugging the hole in the dike with his finger?"
Another irrelevant comment. It seemed to me to rate an irreverent reply. "Yes. A gay friend of mine in high school used to say, 'Did you hear about the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike? She didn't like it.'"
"Tell me something," Brother-in-law replied without laughing at my little joke. "What would you do in a situation like that? That little boy saved his country. But he also starved to death, because nobody found him till after he was dead. How would you handle that type of predicament?"
I answered that I would probably sit there with my finger in the dike constantly thinking of some way to signal for help.
That reply seemed to please him very much.
"And there is also the fable of a king," he continued, "whose people were forbidden to speak to him by a rival monarch, so he worked out a code where every article of clothing and every gesture stood for something, so they could tell him what was going on. Do you think you could do something like that in a similar situation?"
Another time he said, "Kerry, you know, one of the symptoms of schizophrenia is that they develop whole languages of their own -- using ordinary words, but ascribing their own private meanings to them."
"Yes, I read that in one of Loy's psychology textbooks from nursing school." Loy was a French Quarter friend, one of my closest, a serene woman with long black hair who made her living as an artist.
"Well I wonder what makes them invent their own secret languages. Why would anyone, especially a crazy person, go to all that trouble?"
"Maybe because they are crazy. One kind of paranoia is paranoid schizophrenia."
"But you know, Kerry, there are some people who have exhibited the symptoms of paranoia who were taken to psychiatrists, and when they began investigating their backgrounds and their life situations they found out the patient was really being persecuted."
"Yeah, you've mentioned that a couple of times before. There are also actual paranoids, though. Not all of them are really being persecuted."
"No, Kerry -- not all of them."
One of Brother-in-law's recurring themes was the origin of the word, "Hollywood."
"It is from the holly plant or, to the pagans, the holy plant."
"Yes, there is holly growing in the canyons near Hollywood, California."
Another time he spoke sympathetically of the "Hollywood Ten" -- the screenwriters who were blackballed for their suspected Communist connections. That was one of those inconsistencies in his politics I found so disconcerting. What business had a Nazi like him worrying about the civil liberties of accused Reds?
What the Communist underground in Italy did to Mussolini and his mistress was another subject he discussed in a way that made him seem, temporarily, more like a leftist than a fascist. Merriment at the torture-murders of Il Duce and his woman dominated his mood at such times.
There was only one way I could take it: this Nazi brother-in-law of Slim's was weird, and Slim's fascination with him was weird, and that's all there was to it.
"Kerry, there are bureaucrats in the C.I.A. who okay things without reading them. Don't you agree that that kind of behavior should be punished?"
"Yes!" I exclaimed. "There is such a thing as criminal negligence. In Manila there were people living in pasteboard hovels who were starving to death, and the Philippines was a U.S. possession until the late forties. That's another example of something made possible only by criminal negligence."
"And in building our secret society to fight imperialism I think we should follow the policy of not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing. Is that okay, Kerry?"
"It's okay with me," I said innocently.
"And I think one of the legitimate functions of government ought to be the enforcement of contracts. How about you?"
"Yes, definitely. That's one of the only proper functions of government, according to Ayn Rand."
"And I think any contract made by anyone over the age of twenty-one ought to be binding. Is that okay with you?"
"Yes! And I also think oral contracts ought to be binding. A man's word should be as good as his bond."
"Yes," I replied, wondering to myself why Slim seemed suddenly so excited. As usual, he wasn't contributing to the discussion, but he seemed almost beside himself with glee -- grinning in admiration at Brother-in-law, looking at me with a very pleased expression in his eyes.
Of course it did not occur to me that I had just okayed something without examining it, and had moreover set myself up so that every time I agreed with Brother-in-law thereafter he would possess the power to make it a binding contract. For as far as I was concerned at the time I was only humoring the pipe dreams of a maniac, for fear that if I offended him he would become dangerous to me -- or, as with the above, because I happened to agree, but thought my agreement was only academic.
Upon other occasions Slim became incomprehensibly excited when Gary was talking of things that seemed utterly irrelevant, and his silent eagerness was distracting. For example, when Brother-in-law was talking about the roots in mythology for the meanings of the names of the days of the week, Slim was almost bouncing up and down in his seat.
"Kerry, you know among sheep they have a ram with a bell around its neck, to keep the others from straying from the flock. Well in the Chicago stockyard they have a belled ram like that also, and it is trained to go to the area where the sheep are slaughtered. So the other sheep follow the lead ram from the railroad cars to their doom. And that happens over and over again, every time a new batch arrives and is unloaded."
A splendid new addition to my trivia collection.
Sometimes he could really seem mundane and pointless. "You know, dog is 'god' spelled backwards."
Then there were his ridiculously low-brow jokes. "You know what they call a man who likes womens' breasts? A chestnut."
"Did you hear about the old maids who had a beer party at the beach and got sand in their Schlitz?" I would reply, drawing from my Marine Corps experience.
"There was a nigger in the hills of Tennessee," he would tell me, "who read Mein Kampf in the late thirties or early forties and thought it was the greatest book ever written. And then -- heh, heh -- he found out that Hitler regarded Negroes as a subhuman species. More inferior than Jews."
Now and then he would chat with me about the possibility of building a universal language based upon the Jungian notion of the collective unconscious, utilizing associational symbols and unconscious archetypes.
I remarked to him that Freud insisted that in the analysis of dreams trains were always symbolic of death, and mentioned that Jessica's psychology professor had said that rubbing one's nose was a negative sign while stroking one's hair was a positive sign.
That such a language would resemble the cryptic chatter of schizophrenics and therefore would be useful under certain circumstances for dismissing those who spoke it as insane was another relevant possibility that did not occur to me.
That several such cant languages have been developed within the intelligence community and conspiracy politics and that at least one of them was in use as far back as the fifties is something known to those familiar with neo-Nazi Satanism and witchcraft.