After having drunk deep of some amazingly smooth White Lightning corn liquor that my wife’s cousin, who was visiting us for a few days last week, had brought along from Virginia, I managed after a while on the first night to attain to such a level of incoherence that he, suddenly fixing me with a quizzical gaze, asked what exactly my point was.
“. . . Whaaa?”
“What’s your point? What are you trying to say?”
“Ahhh . . . I . . . Uhh. . . .” (What a question to pose, I thought, to one who has delivered himself so cogently of more than 2,300 points in columns written for this newspaper over the years. The nerve.)
But I had to confess he had caught me out. I had been exposed for the bullshitter I was. As I continued to stammer, he hugged me and said it was all right, and I, chastened, said that it was probably time to go to bed.
Earlier that evening, we had talked of Seneca, Socrates, Aristotle, of the need to practice the virtues you admired, and of the importance of a good death, subjects that interested both of us, but as I increasingly cloaked myself in self-regard — thus distancing myself from him — he became increasingly put off.
I was glad that he had called me to account. Too few, aside from Mary, have over the years. It reminded me of the letter to the editor the Southerner who worked here briefly wrote after I’d written a sneering column on the South whose assumptions he found offensive.
Two days later, unmasked, yet not wholly reconstructed, I told my wife’s cousin, whose 30th high school reunion is nearing, that before he and his wife left for a wedding in Rhode Island he might like to read something I’d written for my college’s 40th reunion book. I couldn’t find it when I went to look, though I told him it probably represented my apotheosis as a Pollyanna.
“A classmate,” I said, “took quite the opposite tack. He wrote of suffering, about caring for his mother, who died of Alzheimer’s, about his father’s death, his best friend’s. . . . Our essays made an interesting pair.”
* * *
“Tom [now that I’ve found the book among the ones I have in the office], I talked about how lucky I’d been, in life, in love. . . . The other guy said that ‘the world’s an abattoir, a fucking mess,’ and that all we have is each other.”
It’s something I should remember the next time I, the bullshitter, begin to don my cloak of self-regard.