Around 1963, my dad was in a summer-camp production of Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. He played M. Martin. Sometimes, decades later, he would quote from it to my brother and I. We know from theatre of the absurd, but we thought the bizarre dialogue—the playwright was influenced by the stilted dialogue of the Assimil English–teaching method—was about the most hilarious thing we’d ever heard. We were especially enamored with a story one of the characters relates in the course of the evening.
Once upon a time, another snake said to another fox, “It seems to me that I know you!”
The fox replied to him, “Me too.”
“Then,” said the snake, “give me your money.”
“A fox doesn’t give money,” replied the tricky animal, who, in order to escape, jumped down into a deep ravine full of strawberries and chicken honey.
But the snake was there waiting for him with a Mephistophelean laugh. The fox pulled out his knife, shouting: “I’ll teach you how to live!”
Then he took to flight, turning his back. But he had no luck. The snake was too fast. With a well-chosen blow of his fist, he struck the fox in the middle of his forehead, which broke into a thousand pieces, while he cried: “No! No! Four times no! I’m not your daughter.”
We quoted this a lot. Oftentimes, my brother and I would demand money from each other merely in order to prompt the dialogue. People outside our family found it less hilarious.
We liked other lines from the play, too: “All this is very subjective … but this is my conception of the world.” And: “All cats are mortal.” My brother, in particular, would say “all cats are mortal” on the slightest pretext. This continued into his adult life.
Then, one day a few years ago, he was tending bar in Brooklyn and a regular came in looking very blue. My brother asked him why.
“My cat died,” said the man.
Well, you can imagine what my brother said.
Only recently, my brother ran into the man again. “I’ve always hated you,” the man said. “I’ll never forget how insensitive you were when my cat died. I almost kicked your ass.”
“He was still angry,” said my brother, sounding genuinely regretful.
“Did he try to hit you?” I said.
“The snake was too fast.”