The den is an opulent retreat from the cares of the world. Mr. Mancini comes here to drink, smoke, and relax. It’s here that he gets to be a man, not a father or husband. He’s old-fashioned enough that the roles, until now, have been distinct in his mind.
Whatever Mr. Mancini thinks of his son’s ambitions to be a hero, he hides his opinion behind a paternal smile and words of reassurance and pride. After all, young Pete doesn’t really need to be anything. The family money will take care of him. But it’s promising that he’s making an attempt anyway. Ambition is the mark of a man, and what holds Pete back is what he’s willing to be ambitious about.
Today, his son is finally welcomed into the den, not just as a visitor, but as a fellow. He’s still too young to drink - according to his mother - but there are other ways to enjoy oneself. And what meritorious act earned this reward? Just a question: “Dad, how do I impress a girl?”
There was that girl at school that Pete had been attached to, a middle-class princess who’d put on airs. Mr. Mancini respected her ambition, just as he respected his son’s, but she was taking advantage of his boy. Eventually he might have had to take action. The boy saved him the trouble.
Mr. Mancini’s back is turned. He hears his son enter the den. He composes his face into a smile, and turns.
Peter’s face is a little flushed. The den is always special. He’s still not sure what to make of this.
“Have a seat, son,” Mr. Mancini says, with a gesture toward one of the chairs. There’s already a Diet Coke waiting there, and Pete flashes his dad a look that checks for permission. An encouraging nod is all it takes for the boy to sit down and crack it open.
Mr. Mancini mixes himself a Scotch and finds his own seat, not quite facing the other chair. “Well, son. You asked about impressing a girl. Your dad knows a little bit about that. I’d like to know which girl you have in mind, of course. Tell me about her.”
Peter swallows his Coke, swallows again, starts to talk, and stops when his mouth doesn’t form words the first time out. He tries again. “Uh, it’s the girl I went to the dance with, Dad. Charlotte. She was so nice to me, and polite, and sophisticated. We had a conversation.”
Mr. Mancini has been a man long enough to understand what is and isn’t a euphemism for sex. This isn’t. Well, thank God for that. But the idea that his boy might have actually enjoyed intelligent conversation with a girl - that he aspires to real class - warms his heart. Wealth is the enemy of sophistication. When you can buy anything that strikes your fancy, the barriers of good taste are the first thing to topple.
“That’s good, son. That’s really good. Your dad’s going to tell you the secret.”
“The key to being a man is integrity. Now, you might think that integrity means truthfulness. It doesn’t. A man is going to tell lies, and he’s going to have to distinguish between good lies and bad lies. Integrity is about a deeper honesty. It’s being yourself in all situations. It’s about being the pillar that upholds everything around you.”
A sip of the Scotch prepares Mr. Mancini for the next part. “Son, you’re going to lie to people. Even people you trust. But this is important. You must never, ever tell a lie that demeans you, or demeans them. If someone asks about your private business, you can lie - or just tell them it’s none of theirs. If you’re bored with someone at some social function, you lie and act interested. If someone is rude or ill-mannered - to you - you lie by pretending you didn’t see or hear it. Now, if someone is a boor to a woman you’re escorting, that’s a different matter.”
“The lie that a man tells is that everything around him is sophisticated and interesting. All too often, it’s not. It’s just not. People love to talk about themselves, or their hobbies, or what they had to eat the other day. Some of that can be good, and interesting. Other times, it’s not. But people follow social cues, from the strongest person in the room. A man who’s in control of himself, who has integrity, who is that pillar of certainty, is that strong person. When you are refined, other people will aspire to be like you. And the lie becomes the truth.”
Peter is listening in rapt fascination. He doesn’t get most of this yet, but he sort of gets the idea. “So, I have to act sophisticated, right?”
Mr. Mancini winces internally. This might be more nuance than the lad is ready for. He takes another sip of Scotch to prepare himself.
“Son, you must be sophisticated, really and truly. Then you must tell the lie - through your actions and - that everyone around you is as interesting as you are. People will respond to that, and become interesting.”
Peter bobs his head. “Sophisticated… But dad, how do I do that?”
This might be the hardest part. Mr. Mancini has attempted the soft approach, letting his offspring soak up culture through osmosis. On reflection, that tactic hasn’t been as successful as he’d like.
“Sophistication is knowing something about everything that matters, son. You accomplish that by paying attention to detail. What your date is saying. What’s going on around you. What food and drinks are appropriate for an occasion. What someone is planning. You must be a detective, like Sherlock Holmes, and study the world around you. You must practice mindfulness. I’ve got some books, and there’s a teacher I’ll put you in touch with. But it really comes down to your willingness. You have to be emotionally invested in things. You have to care. If you don’t, no amount of practice will help you.”
Peter thinks about this. He really is a smart boy, his father reflects. He can do this. Maybe he’s finally found a reason to try.
“So… I have to be a man… I have to have integrity… Tell only good lies… Lies that make things better for people… But I should tell the truth too, right dad?”
His father nods. “Whenever possible. Go on.”
“So I should… learn stuff. Be sophisticated. And then … oh! That’s what Charlotte was doing, to me! She was coaching me through dinner! Dad, I get it! I saw her do it, I understand!” He bounces up and down in his chair, almost spilling his Coke, but restrains himself before his father must say something.
“Anyway, anyway, so… I have to listen, and pay attention, and… and that’ll impress girls?”
Mr. Mancini beams. “That’s right. Now, we’re going to start educating you on some specific things to know about, that a girl might like.” He sets down the Scotch and rises, and makes his way to one end of the room. The Sylvania turntable cabinet is a dark mahogany, and has been lovingly maintained over the years. He gently leafs through some of the LPs collected on the shelves, extracts two, and sets them carefully atop the cabinet. Peter watches wide-eyed as his dad removes the turntable cover and prepares the record player, with all the dexterity and care of a surgeon in the operating theater.
author: Bill G.