I knew I was a liar since I was a kid. I lied when the truth would have been simpler. I lied that I did my homework, lied that I had said my prayers when I hadn’t. I could be sporting a cookie crumb five o’clock shadow, and yet I’d deny my hand was ever in the cookie jar.
Truth is what my mother wanted most from me, but she was the one I lied to the most.
The lie that still stands out for me is the one I told at school. It was Ash Wednesday. I had just given up lying for Lent. The priest wiped dark ash on my forehead at eight o’clock mass, and by ten a.m., I had told the class that we had a burglar in the house and that I had caught him red-handed. I blamed my transgression on Marcus Toner. We were about to do ‘show and tell.’ I had brought in some leaves stuck between two pieces of waxed paper, and right before it was my turn, Marcus got up and bragged about his new ride-around lawn mower. His Dad was a big shot at Canadian Tire and was able to get a company discount. Since nobody in the three-room school had ever seen a ride-around lawnmower, the entire class all thought Marcus was hot shit. He brought in mimeographs of the catalogue model to rub in our faces. (Mimeograph machines made duplicates of something by way of the stencil, which was eventually superseded by a photocopier.)
When someone brings in mimeographs of a new ride around a lawnmower, one can hardly get up and show their waxed paper maple leaves.
Mrs. Harris called on me. I walked to the front of the class and began the story.
“My ‘show and tell’ today is more tell than show. Last night, I caught a burglar in my house.”
The entire class gasped.
“I had woken up because I was thirsty, so I went upstairs to get a glass of milk. (Our main floor was on the upper level, and my bedroom was in the basement) As I opened the fridge, I saw in the living room, sitting in my Dad’s chair reading the newspaper…a robber.”
I seem to recall one of the boys yelled out from the back of the room. “What did you do, Debbie?”
“Well, my breath froze in my throat, and my life flashed before my eyes.”
“You should have called the cops.”
“I’d never seen a real robber before, so I crawled along the floor to get a good look at him.” I actually crouched down behind Mrs. Harris’ desk to make my point.
“What did he look like?” Edwin Woods asked. A booger breathed in and out of his nose, like a bubble.
My head popped up, and I leaned in and hissed, “Olive oily?”
In my mind, I recall Marcus Topping tearing up the Canadian Tire flyer into little pieces and shoving them in his mouth.
Screw you, Marcus. When it comes to imagination, you can’t keep up.
These same thoughts have stayed with me my entire life. Most men can’t keep up with how fast I think—how when they zig, I zag.
Everybody was sitting on the edge of their wood seats, attached to their desks. Mrs. Harris, who was at the back of the room, pacing back and forth, wearing a hole in the linoleum.
“Let’s get this straight, Debbie; his skin was“Olive oily?”
“Yes, Mrs. Harris. I could smell his French fry skin. He had dirty pores, likely because of his poor nutritional robber’s diet.”
“What’s a robber’s diet?” asked the other Everett, in grade eight and already six-foot; I looked up. Way up.
“You know the kind of food you eat at the fair? Not the kind the Women’s Institute makes, but the kind of terrible food they serve at the Midway. He smelled like the Midway, and he had a shaved head and an orange jumpsuit on. And maybe he escaped from the Millhaven Pen.” Millhaven was a stone’s throw from Napanee. And once, when there was a breakout, a few men stopped in Napanee and held a man hostage. The boy in the back twirled his finger around his temple like a detective figuring out a case. “Maybe he was a killer?”
“Yes, yes, he certainly could’ve been.” I was now beginning to scare myself.
“My cousin did time in Millhaven. Was it my cousin?” asked Lenny Scanlon.
“Maybe. What does your cousin look like?”
Lenny frowned. “It depends on which one you saw!” Most of Lenny’s cousins were in the Pen, so it was only natural he needed more details.
Before we could sort out family identity, Mrs. Harris hollered.
“Stop it. Stop it. I have had enough.” She stomped her feet like she was keeping time to some square dance song we couldn’t hear.
“Debbie, you really expect us to believe a criminal from Millhaven penitentiary was sitting in your living room, reading the paper? Did this alleged prisoner have a name?”
“Pig…. uh,” I looked up and saw a French word on a sign by the classroom door. “Pig Sortie.”
“Mr. Pig Sortie. He was French. But he could speak English. He was going to rob us blind, but he didn’t because I think when he saw me, he had a change of heart.”
“Oh, Debbie, Debbie, Debbie.”
“I know! It’s amazing. I think he saw all of our family pictures on the wall, and maybe he started pining for his family. Not his crime family, but his real family, the one he had before his life got mixed up in a life of badness.”
I began tearing up. I was starting to feel sorry for Mr. Sortie.
“He told me not to worry; he wasn’t going to hurt me or anything because he was tired of the criminal life and wanted to start his life anew. I told him how I could understand that new beginnings are necessary, then I got him a glass of milk, and both of us sat there in the middle of the night, the Napanee Beaver.
“Sit down, Debbie.” Mrs. Harris hit the tops of her legs with her hands until she gave herself welts. “Go back to your seat!”
“What? What did I say wrong?” I began walking back to my desk.
“Go back to your seat!”
What do you think I am doing, you stupid cow?
“This is too much. Too much indeed.” Her voice sounded like chalk scraped across a blackboard.
She screeched the class back to order, but she had lost all control.
It would have been my best recess ever if Mrs. Harris had not asked me to stay inside to ‘talk.’
I look at people’s feet when I get nervous. Her feet were fat. She had ankles that looked like muffin tops rising over her shoes.
Poor Mrs. Harris and her muffin ankles.
She looked all sad, like I had imagined what Mr. Sortie would have looked like if he really had existed.
When I got home, I was greeted by Gwen, my mother. Her face looked like it would pitch a turd. Obviously, Harris had ratted me out.
“Why is the truth never good enough for you, Debbie?”
Because it’s dull and it takes too long.
“You can say ten Hail Mary’s, and there will be no pie for you.”
My other penance was to go in the next day and tell the entire class the truth. When I got off the bus, kids were gathered around Marcus Topping as he was still milking the lawnmower’s attributes. There was no way I was going to humiliate myself by telling the entire class I had lied.
The next day I went in before class began and apologized to Mrs. Harris privately.
“About yesterday, maybe I….maybe I…er…um… I dreamt there was a burglar in the house.”
“I see. You know Debbie, people who lie will someday want to tell the truth, and then they won’t be able because they have had no practice—they have never worked their truth muscles. Do you want to be a girl who never worked her ‘truth’ muscles?”
Why not? It seems to get me into trouble either way.
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