As sophisticated as he could seem, Brother-in-law was never above platitudes.
"Remember the story of the little boy who cried wolf?"

Patiently, as if imparting great original wisdom, he repeated the whole story to me. "And so when a real wolf came, nobody believed him."

"They used to read that to us in grammar school," I said coldly.

"Remember the story of Caesar's wife? About how she couldn't afford even the appearance of lacking virtue -- because she was Caesar's wife?"

"Yes. I saw the movie with Marlon Brando and Greer Garson, based on the play."

"That's an important lesson to keep in mind."

"We went to a sneak preview when I was in junior high. Our drama teacher got us free tickets."

"Do you recall Louis XIV? They called him the Sun King and they built a cult around him. He said, 'I am the State.'"

"Yeah, people used to even stand around and watch him take baths. There was a picture of that in one of our history books."

"You know that saying, Kerry, about the exception that proves the rule?"

"Yes. That didn't used to make sense to me. If there is an exception, that proves it is not a rule. Then I read somewhere that people use that saying wrong. It means the exception that tests the rule; they are using 'prove' in the sense of testing. I think that was in Reader's Digest."

"Remember Mendel, Kerry, who discovered genetics? His accomplishments were never recognized within his own lifetime. Wouldn't that be horrible? To make an important discovery and yet to remain anonymous and unrecognized?"

"A fate worse than death," I replied.

"You wouldn't let that happen to you, would you?"

"Don't worry. I wouldn't."

What made these discussions seem unimportant, more than anything else, was the way they wandered from one topic to another. Swirls of organic verbal coherence would build up to the point where we would seem to be getting somewhere and I would become excited, then Brother-in-law would either seem to change the subject for no reason, or he would make a remark so horrid as to turn me off. As a small boy he must, I figured, have gone around knocking down sand castles and sticking firecrackers in ant hills -- for he seemed gleefully delighted with acts of destruction.

"Remember what Priscilla said to John Alden?"

"Yeah, 'Speak for yourself, John.' I read the Classic Comic of The Courtship of Miles Standish. A guy I've known since the third grade had a whole collection of them. That's how I learned to read."

"She wanted to hear what he had to say, not what the man who sent him told him to say."

"Yeah, I bet I would never have learned to read in school. I just wasn't much into Dick, Jane, Sally and Spot."

"Kerry, I think the philosopher-king should be someone who doesn't blame messengers for bringing bad news."

"I agree. Once in a Captain Midnight radio show an evil king had someone shot for bringing him news he didn't like. That seemed awfully unfair."

"You know, that was one of Hitler's shortcomings. Toward the end of the war, when the Germans were losing, he instructed his intelligence people not to give him any bad news."

"That figures."

"Did you know, Kerry, that Hitler and most other great dictators kept a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince at their bedsides?"

"Eric Hoffer's book, The True Believer, seems to be written in the same style as The Prince. He says that one of the sources of recruiting for fanatical causes is the bored, because if your own business is worth minding, then you usually mind it. I like that saying. I think one of these days I'll print up business cards that quote it. New Orleans is just full of people who don't understand how to mind their own business. Total strangers are always walking up to me and giving me free advice. I hate that."

Slim shared my feelings about the provinciality of New Orleaneans and was always ready to discuss the subject. Brother-in-law was not the same way. Avoiding my glance, he would say nothing.

Lulls in the conversation were not unusual. But they would always pick up again.

"You know, in the Mayan culture of Central America they used to raise virgins from birth for the sole purpose of sacrificing them to the gods when they came of age."

"Yeah. What a waste! There was this documentary film about that they used to show us in school. It was about Guatemala. It must have been one of the only films in the library, because they showed it nearly every year. They kept the virgins in a gigantic well until it was time to cut their hearts out."

"Kerry, do you believe in the greatest good for the greatest number?"

"Yes. But I believe the greatest number is Old Number One here."

Brother-in-law cracked up. He liked that one. It was a statement he could identify with.

One of his trite repetitions, spoken always with a cheerful, tight little grin, was, "You know, Kerry, it really is a dog-eat-dog world."

"That's what my dad used to always tell me."

"It's true."

"I think that depends on how you look at it. Ayn Rand would say that's a parasitical attitude."

"Kerry thinks everything Ayn Rand says," Slim injected to Brother-in-law, "is about ninety-nine percent more true than anything anyone else says."

"Not exactly. There are things in Ayn Rand's writings I disagree with."

"Kerry, imagine a movement based on a man, instead of an idea. Consider the advantages. A man possesses many ideas. He is more flexible than an ideology," Brother-in-law went on in a voice filled with warmth and emotion. "People can identify with a man as they cannot identify with cold, abstract ideas. Think of that -- a movement based on a man."

"Yes," I said, "I think that's probably true," unsure of whether or not he had changed the subject again.

"You know, Kerry, the duPont family is very large; there are hundreds and hundreds of them."

He had changed the subject.

Then there was something he mentioned once or twice that seemed even less credible than flying saucers powered by German secrets of perpetual motion.

"In the state of California, Kerry, there is a plan to begin performing mind control experiments on people who live there. I.G. Farben, the economic arm of the Third Reich is involved in it. They are going to put surveillance devices in the heads of their experimental victims, in order to monitor them, and then they are going to subject them to mind control. So, if I were you, Kerry, I would think maybe it would be a good idea to stay out of California in the future."

I looked at him. I didn't say anything, except to acknowledge that he had spoken. A picture was conjured up in my mind of thousands of puppets on electronic strings being manipulated by a vast, hidden cartel -- of people in psychological torment that seemed too horrible to be possible. This guy was wasting his talents as a cheap hood employed in a brewery; he should be writing novels.

A couple of other times he spoke of what, perhaps because of the way it was phrased, sounded more credible. "Kerry, the Fascists are now experimenting with advanced thought control techniques. You know, there are Fascists in this country. Among them is Henry Luce, who publishes Time and Life magazines. They are planning to build a society comprised of nothing but human robots, with transistors installed in the backs of their heads, so that they will be absolutely obedient to subliminal messages."

"Yeah. There are people who say it can't happen here. But I guess it can."

"Remember the saying about how you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink?"

"A friend of mine in high school used to say, 'You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.'"

With characteristic unfairness, Brother-in-law seemed annoyed at the irrelevance of my remark.

He found my comments about Germans equally irritating. "Every now and then we have German tourists at work, where I wait tables at the Sheraton-Charles. They're so rude and crude," I said, borrowing one of Slim's favorite expressions. "They blow their noses in the cloth napkins and leave olive pits in the ash trays. When they want a waiter, they snap their fingers. They talk loud. I don't like Germans very much," I added, feeling brave.

"You cannot, however, generalize about a whole race from a few examples."

I couldn't believe my ears!

"And there are things about the Germans, Kerry, that are quite admirable. They are very precise people, in both their music and their devotion to science. In that sense they are highly civilized -- real sticklers for perfection."

"Yeah, I guess that's true."

"Kerry, one of Nelson Rockefeller's sons went on an expedition in the jungles of New Guinea and vanished. I wonder what ever happened to him?"

I shrugged my shoulders.

"Kerry, you know, criminologists say that a strand of hair is a more certain method of identification than a fingerprint."

"I read that in Dick Tracy's 'Crimestopper's Textbook,'" I replied, adding that I had also learned from the same source tht the best murder weapon was an icicle, because it melts afterwards and cannot be used as evidence.

Once he spoke of the People's Republic of China -- a very mysterious, bellicose foreign power in those days. "You know, Clare Booth Luce is in favor of diplomatic recognition for Red China."

"No, I didn't realize that. Hell, she supports Goldwater. I don't get it."

"It's true, though." After a pause, he added, "You know, loyalty to the State is expected above loyalty to your own family there."

"Yeah. I saw a picture of a statue once in a book in the library of a little boy in Communist China who reported his own parents to the secret police."

"Those are the values they foster there. They've got so many millions of people to work with that their values have to be different than ours."

"I don't see what difference the number of people makes. That is altruism at its worst extreme, if you ask me."

"Kerry, I've got a close friend in the New Orleans police department. He knows I'm a burglar. If I ever get in trouble, I can rely on him for favors."

"Yeah, they ought to call the New Orleans police the Blue Mafia. Did I tell you about the time I got put in jail for nailing posters to telephone poles? I never saw such rotten conditions and such open corruption in my life. I'm tempted to write a book about it."

"Kerry, when I take over the country, how would you like to be Secretary of Defense? You are a strong believer in national defense. You would be able to travel everywhere in the world, and that's something I know you would like. I think you'd make a very good Secretary of Defense."

"Yes. I'd probably like that job."

"Then it's settled. When I take over, you will be my Secretary of Defense."

Slim was looking at me and laughing.

"And who do you recommend for President -- after we kill Kennedy and Johnson's term expires?"

"Barry Goldwater," I answered without hesitation.

"Don't talk to me about that raving Red," Brother-in-law said with a laugh. "I think Nixon ought to be our man, because Nixon is unprincipled. A man without principles is easy to manipulate. We want somebody we can control, Kerry."

I was amused to hear Goldwater called a "raving Red." Brother-in-law seemed to be making fun of himself -- of the extremity of his own paranoia and right-wing views. Little things like that always made everything else he said seem less menacing.




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