A Suitable Fable
I have to say, I worry a little bit that the mix of stories that we’ve chosen for today’s program gives a misimpression. It makes David seem like more of a loner than he really was. Yes, he was partly a loner. But he was partly just the opposite, with dozens of friends and people who loved him. And that last story was just way too sad to end our program with today.
So one more story now. This last one is a favorite. It was first on the radio show in 2009. An expanded version appears in his new book. Here’s the 2009 version.
Nathan, at one of the outlying tables, his feet tangled up in the disc jockey’s cables, surveyed the room unseen as a ghost, while he mulled over what he might say for his toast. Though the couple had asked him for this benediction seemed at odds with them parking him here by the kitchen. That he’d shown up at all was still a surprise, and not just to him. It was there in the eyes of the guests who had seen a mirage and drew near and then covered their shock with a, “Nathan, you’re here.”
And then, silence. They’d nothing to say beyond that. A few of the braver souls lingered to chat. They all knew it was neither a secret nor mystery that he and the couple had quite an odd history. Their bonds were a tangle of friendship and sex– Josh, his best pal once, and Patty, his ex.
For a while, he could barely go out in the city without being a punchline or object of pity. “Poor Nathan” had virtually become his new name. And so he showed up just to show he was game, though his invite was late– a forgotten addendum. For Nate, there could be no more clear referendum that he need but endure through this evening, and then he would likely not see Josh and Patty again.
Josh’s sister was speaking– a princess in peach. Nathan dug in his pocket to study his speech. He’d poured over Bartlett’s for couplets to filch. He stayed up until 3:00, still came up with zilch, except for instructions he’d underscored twice– just two words in length, and those words were “be nice.”
“Too often,” he thought, “our emotions betray us, and reason departs once we’re up on the dais.” He’d witnessed uncomfortable moments where others had lost their way quickly, where sisters and brothers had gotten too prickly and peppered their babbling with stories of benders or lesbian dabbling or spot-on impressions of mothers-in-law, which, true, Nathan thought, always garnered guffaws. But the price seemed too high with the laughs seldom cloaking hostility masquerading as joking.
No, he’d swallow his rage and he’d bank all his fire. He knew that in his case the bar was that higher. Folks were just waiting for him to erupt. They’d be hungry for blood even though they had supped. They’d want tears or some other unsightly reaction, and Nathan would not give them that satisfaction. Though Patty, a harlot, and Josh was a lout, at least Nathan knew what he’d not talk about.
“I won’t wish them divorce, that they wither and sicken, or tonight that they choke on their salmon or chicken. I won’t mention that time when the cottage lost power in that storm on the cape and they left for an hour, and they thought it was just the cleverest ruse to pretend it took that long to switch out the fuse. Or that time Josh advised me with so much insistence that I should grant Patty a little more distance– that the worst I could do was to hamper and crowd her, that if Patty felt stifled, she’d just take a powder, that a plant needs its space just as much as its water. And I shouldn’t give Patty that ring that I’d bought her, which, in retrospect, only elicits a gosh, I hardly deserved a friend like you, Josh. No, I won’t spill those beans or make myself foolish to satisfy appetites venal and ghoulish. I will not be the blot on this hellish affair.” And with that, Nathan pushed out and rose from his chair. And just by the tapping of knife against crystal, all eyes turned his way like he’d fired off a pistol.
“Joshua, Patricia, dear family and friends, a few words if you will, before everything ends. You’ve promised to honor, to love, and obey. We’ve quaffed our champagne and been cleansed by sorbet, all in endorsement of your, hers, and hisdom. So now let me add my two cents’ worth of wisdom. I was racking my brain sitting here at this table, until I remembered this suitable fable that gets at a truth, though it may well distort us. So here with the tale of the scorpion and tortoise.
The scorpion was hamstrung, his tail all a quiver. Just how would he manage to get cross the river? ‘The water’s so deep,’ he observed with a sigh which pricked at the ears of the tortoise nearby. ‘Well, why don’t you swim?’ asked the slow-moving fellow. ‘Unless you’re afraid. I mean, what are you, yellow?’
‘It isn’t a matter of fear or of whim,’ said the scorpion, ‘but that I don’t know how to swim.’ ‘Oh, forgive me. I didn’t mean to be glib when I said that. I figured you were an amphibian.’ ‘No offense taken,’ the scorpion replied, ‘but how about you help me to reach the far side? You swim like a dream, and you have what I lack. What say take me across on your back?’
‘I’m really not sure that’s the best thing to do,’ said the tortoise, ‘now that I see that it’s you. You have a less than ideal reputation preceding. There’s talk of your victims all poisoned and bleeding. You’re the scorpion, and– how can I say this– but, well, I just don’t feel safe with you riding my shell.’ The scorpion replied, ‘What would killing you prove? We’d both drown, so tell me– how would that behoove me to basically die at my very own hand when all I desire is to be on dry land?’
The tortoise considered the scorpion’s defense. When he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense. The niggling voice in his mind he ignored, and he swam to the bank and called out, ‘Climb aboard.’ But just a few moments from when they set sail, the scorpion lashed out with his venomous tail. The tortoise, too late, understood that he’d blundered when he felt his flesh stabbed and his carapace sundered.
As he fought for his life, he said, ‘Tell me why you have done this, for now we will surely both die.’ ‘I don’t know!’ cried the scorpion. ‘You never should trust a creature like me, because poison and I must. I’d claim some remorse or at least some compunction, but I just can’t help it. My form is my function. You thought I’d behave like my cousin the crab, but unlike him, it is but my nature to stab.’
The tortoise expired with one final quiver, and then both of them sank, swallowed up by the river. The tortoise was wrong to ignore all his doubts, because in the end, friends, our natures will out.”
Nathan paused, cleared his throat, took a sip of his drink. He needed these extra few seconds to think. The room had gone frosty. The tension was growing. Folks wondered precisely where Nathan was going. The prospects of skirting fiasco seemed dim. But what he said next surprised even him.
“So what can we learn from their watery ends? Is there some lesson on how to be friends? I think what it means is that central to living a life that is good is a life that’s forgiving. We’re creatures of contact. Regardless of whether we kiss or we wound, still we must come together.
Though it may spell destruction, we still ask for more, since it beats staying dry but so lonely on shore. So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well it’s essentially saying, please, come pierce my shell.”
Silence doesn’t paint the depth of quiet in that room. There was no clinking stemware toasting to the bride or groom. You could have heard a petal if it landed on the floor. And in that stillness, Nathan turned and walked right out the door.
David Rakoff. When David decided to put that poem into his new book, he went back and he added a crucial fact– a very, very, very important fact that he learned only after we broadcast the poem. So in the book, Nathan gives the toast, and then he runs into a guy on the way out who informs him of the fact that David learned later– this is from the book– the guy says, “That toast, if you give it again– but you won’t– remember, Nate, turtles swim. Tortoises don’t.”