Lies for sale

There's a game I like to play in class whenever we're discussing the value of literature. I'll tell three stories, two of which are true. Then the students have to guess which one is the lie. The stories are usually (but not always) told in first person, and I add a lot of little details to create verisimilitude. The point (in as much as there is one) is to introduce students to the paradoxical idea that fiction can be a medium for truth telling in which the truth doesn’t especially matter. So here are the three stories I usually tell. Ready?

1. The Night I Didn't Find God

Many more years ago than I care to confess, I briefly entertained the idea of going to seminary. I made a preliminary visit to a seminary in Minnesota (where I was living at the time), and even met once or twice with a recruiter. Anyway, during this period I was working for the Minnesota Historical Society and living in St. Paul. I didn't know a lot of people in the Twin Cities, but I would occasionally share a beer with the brother of an ex-girlfriend. One night Jim called and asked if I wanted to go to a bar and watch the North Stars' game (neither of us had cable). So we went to this dive bar on Selby Avenue called the Chatterbox Lounge, which we always called Chateau-X because the neon “b,” “r” and "o" in the sign were burned out. This was truly a dive bar: old Naugahyde booths taped up with duct tape, drunks passed out at the bar, those old battered aluminum ashtrays stuffed with butts. So Jim and I sit at the bar and we're half-watching the game and half talking. A few stools down from me is this frail little man in a threadbare sports jacket.

It's below zero outside and this guy is standing there shivering over a draw beer. So I said something to the guy and after a few minutes we are talking. Turns out he's from Eritrea. Pretty soon we are talking about the civil war that was going on there at the time. In the middle of this conversation, I hear this gruff, booming voice behind me saying "LEAVE THAT GUY ALONE!"I turn and there is a huge Native American man staring at me. He must be 6'-5" and well over 200 pounds. He's just glaring mad.

"What is it with you white people?" he asks menacingly. Then he goes into this long litany of every terrible thing that white people did to Native Americans, every broken treaty, every massacre. I stand there and listen unwilling to interrupt him. When he's done I mumbled something like "I, uh, don't know what to say. To apologize would be kind of an obscenity. You're right. Everything you said was true."The guy stares at me a long time. My friend Jim says to this day that he was convinced the guy was about to punch me in the face. But after a few moments he says, "Did you ever do a sweat?"

"A what?"

"A sweat, a religious ritual. You're a spiritual person. I would like to do a sweat with you."So this guy and I talked for about two hours. He had just gotten out of prison where he had rediscovered his Native American religion. He was trying to get his life back on track. Anyway, as Jim and I readied to leave, the guy stood and wrapped me in his arms. Tears were streaming down his cheeks and he said, "I am so happy I met you."

And then Jim and I went out into a freezing Minnesota night and walked to his rattletrap Toyota. I remember sitting there in his car waiting as it struggled to warm up, my teeth chattering, and still stupefied by what just happened. For some reason, too, I knew in that moment that I was never going to seminary.

2. "But She Was Only in the Car

I had friend in college, Eric, whose life was one relationship catastrophe after another. We used to joke that Eric didn’t really have a love life. Rather, his problems had a love life. He was divorced (actually, his former wife left him) and he worked part-time at UPS loading trucks. He was also finishing his degree in English. Into this he managed to insert a series of disastrous relationships. One was particularly memorable.

He got a call one night from a telemarketer. It was some woman trying to sell special light bulbs that were rather expensive but purported to be especially long-lived. So one thing leads to another and before long Eric is flirting with the saleswoman. They talk for a while and Eric says, just before he hangs up, “I’m not going to buy your light bulbs, but it would be okay with me if you tried to sell me some tomorrow.

So the woman does call the next night, and the next, and the next... Finally, he asks if they can meet, and the woman, Tina, makes this noise like when you have a bandage ripped off too quickly:“SSSSsssssss. There’s kind of a problem.”So Eric asks her what it is, and she says that “it’s kind of like, well, um, I’m in prison.” Now this would have been the end of the conversation for any normal person, but not Eric. He keeps taking her calls even after he learns she's doing time for bank robbery. To this day, too, whenever he gets to this part of the story, he always has to point out that "she was only in the car,” which I always find a little odd because it's rather a meaningless distinction.

Well, Eric's little relationship with the telemarketer goes on for almost a year. Then she announces that she’s getting out. She’ll be in a release facility for a while, but she wonders if Eric would be okay if she moved in with him. By this time he had actually travelled a few times to meet her. So because of his unerring instincts with women, he agrees. Tina eventually moves in and within weeks Eric is coming home from work at UPS and finding all kinds of disreputable people in his apartment hanging around, drinking, talking, planning new crime sprees.

One night he decides to set them all straight and says if they don’t knock it off he’s going to have to call the police. So one of Tina's confederates ties him up and steals everything of value that he owns. And here’s the best part, the part that makes it the perfect "Eric Story." Tina sides with the crooks. After they’ve tied him up and are getting ready to leave, she comes over and says she’s really sorry things turned out the way they did. She actually kind of liked him. Then she turns and walks out, leaving him tied to his kitchen chair, which, for my money, is hands down the best “I got dumped” story I’ve ever heard.

3. The End of the Affair (with apologies to Graham Greene)

This story also took place in college, well grad school anyway. I had been in this long distance relationship for a while. Every other weekend I would drive to see my girlfriend, Gayle, who was going to another university. So one weekend she asks me if I can take her cat. She has to switch her living arrangements and the new place won’t allow pets. Now I am not especially a cat person. They’re okay. I don’t mind them, but I have never desired to own one. Still, I love Gayle and I want to be the helpful boyfriend. I am even thinking about asking her to marry me. End result: I agree to take the cat.

Then Gayle decides to end the relationship, or I should say that she decided to start a new one without bothering to inform me that her old one with me was over. The short of it is that I end up as the owner of my faithless ex-girlfriend’s cat. For two years I feed and care for the cat (Doug), but I'm not particularly fond of it. Other than feeding him and letting him out, I pretty much leave him alone. There's a psychological component at work here as well. Every time I look at Doug, I think about Gayle, and every time I think about Gayle I'm reminded of how angry I am at her, but also I partly feel sorry for myself, and partly I just miss her.

Then one day I come home and notice that Doug is constipated. He's just sitting there in his litter box and he can’t go. I don’t really worry about this because I figure that people get constipated, so cats must too.I come home the next night and Doug looks worse. He won’t even let me pick him up. So now I am thinking that I better call a vet, which I do. The vet says Doug's probably got a urinary tract blockage and if he isn’t operated upon soon he will poison himself and die. Somehow I manage to get Doug into a cardboard box and take him to the vet, who immediately determines that his original diagnosis is right. He needs to operate right away. I ask the vet how much this is likely to cost me and he says around $700, plus Doug will need a special prescription medicine that’s also insanely expensive.

So I ask about putting the cat to sleep, and the vet starts to give me the 'irresponsible pet owner' look, but he finally says it costs $30.“Thirty bucks?”“Yeah,” he says. “It’s $20 for the shot and there’s a $10 rendering fee for the disposal of the carcass.” I tell him just to do the shot, and I’ll worry about the carcass. Now he’s really eyeing me suspiciously. He asks, “What are you going to do with it?“I don’t know. Bury it in the backyard, I guess.”He says that’s against the law. There’s a city ordinance or something, but I stick to my demand. “Just give me the cat,” I say. He shrugs and whips out this paper, a little kitty death warrant or something, which I have to sign even though Doug is looking right up at me.

But I sign it and go wait out in the lobby. I sit there wondering if I should call Gayle, who I haven't talked to in all this time. A part of me vindictively wants to plop the bad news right on her answering machine ("Oh, by the way, your cat's dead"). Another part just wants to talk to her again.Now the receptionist, who has not been privy to the scene I just had with the vet, comes up to me with this big sad look on her face. “I’m so sorry about your cat,” she says. I tell her it’s okay, but she continues to try to comfort me.

Then, after a while, the vet reappears. There are these two swinging saloon-type doors that separate the lobby from the examination rooms, and the vet is standing slightly behind them and motioning for me to come closer. So I walk over to him and he whispers, “Do you want me to put the cat in something?”“No, just give him to me.”“Well,” he says, “I can’t have you walking past all my other clients in the lobby carrying out a dead cat. Why don’t you come around to the back of the clinic?”So I agree to this and head around behind the building. It’s a squat one-story cement block building and there’s only a single windowless metal door.

And I wait and I wait. It seems like I’m standing there for 20 minutes. Finally the door opens and outcomes this cardboard box wrapped in so many yards of packing tape that it would have taken another 20 minutes and a box cutter to open. Bam, the door instantly closes. I bend down to pick up the box and it’s really heavy, a lot heavier than the cat I brought in. So I shake the box a little and it's obvious that there are a couple of extra cats in there, three at a minimum. The vet has dumped them on me so he doesn’t get dunned for the rendering fee.

The end of the story is a bit anticlimactic. I take my box of cats home, borrow a spade, and break it while digging the hole (that costs me). Anyway, as I'm finishing up. it occurs to me that I have at last laid to rest the final lingering connection I had to my faithless ex-girlfriend.

That’s three stories. So which of these is the lie? Post your response in the responses and tell me how you sniffed out the the lie. And if any of you know the right answer, sit on your hands and let others play.

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