Celebrated (part sixteen)
“Listen. I’ve taught this myself, I believe in it, there’s nothing wrong with it. By which I mean, in context, it’s the truth. I always tell students, I will never push you to do my work. I want you to do your work. The classroom process exists for you to find out what that is. Critiques are not pick sessions…and so forth. I have my kids talk about their piece, their inspiration. I ask for suggestions from the class. I try to frame the exercise so no one will say mean things, which doesn’t always work! My mother said that to you, though. I won’t write your book for you. I wasn’t there, and I guarantee it.”
“And so, someone can be really great as a mentor, an encourager. Not me.”
Letting this go. “But to say…to a daughter…why not talk to those other girls and get to know them? I bet you have a lot in common. The way to have a friend is to be a friend… I don’t think Madeline got the psychology of it. The way a low-status member of a group bids for the friendship of the others is to hate the person they hate. I think…I’m sorry if this sounds like a silly thing to rehash fifty years on…”
He gave a side nod, passed on changing the subject.
“Okay, Tom. I think it would horrify someone in that low position…the leper, the object, singling them out for approach. I think it would enrage the leader of the group. They label you a loser. They make you a loser by embarrassing everyone away from speaking to you. If you ‘come at’ them, won’t they take it as dirt, taint? No, I think a human being can befriend another human being. And bless my mother’s heart, she believed in people’s humanity. But a bully’s victim is not human to her, so the little formula doesn’t work. Don’t you think?”
“Lunch? This place?”
“We might as well.”
Maybe her voice had been dry. Petra was ready to apologize, be the conciliatory one in this short-term non-friendship that, even so, felt like friendship. He could hardly owe it to her to hear her complaints. Just because he solicited them.
The server came, with coffee and an order pad.
“Barbecued chicken in a basket,” Tom said, and the girl’s attention went straight to him. “Is that about right for two people?”
“If you want.”
“Comes with fries.”
He looked at Petra, eyebrows raised, and so she said, “That’s fine.”
“Okay, actually. You asked me what I thought, and what I thought was, all that’s true, but…”
“But you know more?”
“No. It’s a big point, and I don’t pretend I’m ready to just debate something I haven’t ever… Dealt with.”
Nice, that with each other they were now taking on this pettish tone. And so, dear, be the grown-up. “Now, what about the weather? After we eat, take another shot at the fossils?”
“You know, I kind of like just checking out the towns along the highway. I’ve always had that…whatever. Curiosity about what people’s houses look like, where they shop…”
Rolls arrived, and a basket of fries, an unpocketed bottle of ketchup, a second pocket emptied of jellies, apple butters, creamers.
“Chicken’ll be up in a sec.”
“Thank you.” They both said it.
“When,” Tom said, “I got famous…in a minor, minor way, of course…I met people who liked being my friend, wanted to, because I’d sat down with a couple people, had phone numbers, could theoretically have arranged an introduction…I mean people everyone had heard of.”
“Other famous people.”
“Shields and Yarnell. Rick Dees.”
“No, I really met Gary Owens.”
“Friendly. Shook my hand. Told me he hadn’t read my book.”
The chicken came.
“I’m making a kind of pointless point, I suppose. That people are phony, self-serving.”
“Not worth having as friends?”
He laughed again, dabbing barbecue sauce, made her no obvious, canned rejoinder, but: “You said a Titanic book?”
“One of the crew, one of the stewards, that was my thing… One of his gents. The ship is going down and he gives the steward a coat of his own, says keep it if you get a place, and best of luck to you. In the chaos, you know, some of the male passengers and crew were able to jump into boats they were lowering half-filled, because of their women and children first rule. So, for fiction’s sake, Hector gets in, shoves his hands in the pockets, finds some papers. The upshot, he has a chance to change his identity, never go home to his wife and kids. Leave off all his debts. You’re going to tell me it’s contrived.”
“No. Everything’s contrived.”
(2019, Stephanie Foster)