If I say I have traveled abroad for any reason other than to look for love, that would be a lie. Though as a matter of course I am a creature born from lies, a slave to the truth that lies make the world go round.
The south of France is ideal for my purposes, overrun as it typically is with women of a certain age traveling in pairs or small groups. And it provides a richness of atmosphere unequaled by much of the world. Is that what you want, you may ask, when undertaking a search for love? A kind of competition for the senses, a backdrop more important than the characters who parade across its stage? Maybe not, but I am a man vulnerable to beauty in all its forms. And the intensity of my business requires an intense restfulness even as I conduct what has been a mostly fruitless search.
I spent ten days at this inn three years ago. I remember the stone terrace wreathed in wisteria. I remember unattended women flitting in and out of doorways in a variety of rain hats, insipid conversations over pots of too fragrant tea. And Madame Jute, with her broad, weathered face and blood-colored apron–she is still here though her husband has passed, which fact has not yet appreciably affected the upkeep of the place. In the interim, she tells me, the butcher has also died, as well as her former sister-in-law, who took up residence on the carefree and unattainable shores of Crete, though the butcher, she says, constitutes a greater loss, bien sur.
In my corner of the world, my dentist’s wife has passed away, as well as Mrs. Schickel who lived down the block, both terriers belonging to my colleague H., and my father, only two months ago, making me an orphan entire, though I do not mention any of this to Madame. Now that my father is on the other side, is invisible in a real way, he can, it’s perfectly possible, follow me at will, observe the banal logistics of my movements, watch me wage my small overtures of love with women I do not know, and so on. Yet I don’t believe he can get inside my head to a greater degree than before he died. It’s natural to feel some anxiety about where he is, almost the same anxiety I’ve felt all along, and to ask myself, Am I still wrapped in the fist of his awful secret? I have kept the thing safe some twenty-eight years, in perfect loyalty to my father, if also in subservience to the degeneration it brought him. Now that he’s gone, the secret feels newer, heavier. When I wake in the airy country room surrounded by thick yellow plaster and ancient beams and hear the rooster screech, I say, Now it is only my secret.
To clear the books at home in order to travel was no cinch. My business has undergone a dizzying surge in the last five years owing to the number of employers who today require polygraphs from job applicants. Sometmes even people who want to pack groceries must come to me for a certificate of examination along with stock brokers and nurses. It’s become a nearly universal part of the application process. Polygraph rooms are popping up like car washes. I award certificates to those who give the answers sought by employers, which vary widely depending not only upon the job itself but also upon the disposition of the hiring party. I make no bones about reporting their truthfulness accurately, albeit in the last year I have acquired doubts as to the dignity of this task if it deprives someone of even a meager living.
Deceit is not a complicated matter when you reduce it to data on paper. After eighteen years on the job, I know all the signs, even the invisible ones. I can spot lies lodged in the black of an iris or wriggling along an eyebrow or lip. I hear them faintly whir around a person like a hatch of shadflies. Often the initial moment of introduction tells me what I need to know about someone, though it’s still requisite to strap him or her up to the apparatus and conduct a formal examination. Years ago, the process took as long as three hours. There was more hand holding then, figuratively speaking. Often we would enter into a few bare moments eye to eye, since I enjoyed an opportunity to preview the psychological terrain. I would find some way to reassure nerves, put the worriers at ease, perhaps relating silly stories about a fictitious grandmother or a long-haired cat named Marmaduke. Occasionally I would smile too broadly at a woman or pat her on the knee. Now it is quite different; such intricacies have been outmoded. I schedule about forty-five minutes per subject; paperwork must be filled out beforehand. I give a quick diagnostic look, arrange the apparatus, wipe the fingertips with witch hazel, make a few comforting remarks in a wholly sincere manner as I affix straps and sensors, provide water and wafers, and begin the control questions. Extraneous conversation has been dispensed with. I position myself behind the subject. My voice unravels in a dense brocade of questions meant to disarm and then expose. The monitoring arms sputter and skate with every change in pulse, breath, sweat. When it’s over, I dismantle everything in a perfunctory manner, ignoring their nearly always awkward pleas for some indication of the results. I show them to the door, assure them I will mail the reports promptly. Sometimes I confide to the ladies that everything is as normal as can be expected, which shows my flair for meaningless statements and usually placates them. At day’s end, there are about six or seven tests to score, which I mail off without the slightest interest in what comes next. This increasingly hectic format prevents personal involvement in the stories of my clients, which is not as desirable as you might think. Without the personal element, the whole process resembles a rote conveyance, a parcel of souls sectioned and x-rayed on cafeteria trays. Picture a revolving door whose compartments are continually jammed with half-clothed strangers exclaiming nervously into a thick bit of smeared glass–this is an apt portrait of my day.
Because they are my stock in trade, I’ve been forced to see lies from every side. And in the final analysis they have some obvious virtues, to be sure. What a world it would not be without lies. Imagine a band of sheep plummeted into the truth in a blind mute consonance with each other. What would ever happen? How can you separate, ultimately, the lie from the beauty of what is? Say the Italians are famous for their lovemaking–yet so much of lovemaking is based on indelible relationships with lies. But would you say they are famous for their lies? No, they become famous for the vehemence, the passion with which they tell the stories they believe. Lies are woven into every material, every momentary evanescence. To root them out would be tantamount to shredding reality.
People are terrified to be held up and examined in parts of themselves no one is meant to see. My subjects, with their nurtured prevarications, their elaborate self-deceptions, which they maintain with nothing more than smoke and mirrors, are often convinced of the truthfulness of the patently untrue. It was my job to rid them of these illusions, though I told myself it was the machine that destroyed the peace of many an innocent liar. In the early years I couldn’t see myself as anything but a craftsman who set the most delicate tiles but whose real handiwork was demolition. After a time, however, I started to feel responsible for my subject’s experience. I might then have unconsciously begun to soften the results. I equivocated, letting them know their deceits were modest, socially acceptable, in any event harmless. I might say, Well, there isn’t really anyone who doesn’t want to steal money when you get right down to it. Or, These prevarications are ultimately rather enchanting, even expedient in a spiritual sense … Imagine how lost you would be without them! In some cases I went so far as to suggest they were not devoted enough to the sublimity of their lies. As if there were an artistry involved that ought to be refined and recognized. No one knows the years of work that go into these things, and so on. This required a polished decorum on my part, plus a knack for speechmaking, which I came by naturally from my parents.
My father was the first liar I knew. You can’t count my mother, who left us when I was eleven, because her lies comprised a jumble of misunderstandings, a mass of bewilderment that took the form of sincere statements of the most ridiculous nature. She told tall tales, anything and everything became her own brand of exaggeration, accompanied by painfully large gestures. She imagined the plumber was guilty of matricide, the gym teacher had pocketed the house key from her purse intent on a rendezvous (she turned her bag inside out and shook it for half an hour to prove her case). She believed for a short time that my father was James Michener, that he wanted to pack his things and rejoin his characters in Hawaii. She brought him home a new Hawaiian shirt every day during this period and pleaded with him, I want to be Julie Andrews. She wasn’t crazy, she simply formed impressions in her mind in a compulsory manner, the way many of us do. Hers were more colorful than most, the product of an exotic imagination, and she often waved her arms and wagged her hair when describing them, though this did little to demonstrate a preponderance of sanity.
It’s not an overstatement to say that when she left my life stopped. The person I had become before that point in time is the only person I am today–this is who I choose to be, how I choose to see it. Even all these years later, I am attached to her by the exaggerated nature of her antics, by the wildness of her perceptions, which reassure me the way a beloved stuffed animal might. I play her scenes in my head, especially when sleep won’t come, which happens often. I keep close to her as she speaks her games–that’s what I thought they were, innocent games, a way of entertaining herself in the confines of this forever antechamber–so that she moves and speaks inside me. Once she left us, everything changed quickly with my father. She never did find us again–how could she find us? We never stopped moving.
As I said, my father was the first really serious liar I knew. His lies became implicit after she left, part and parcel of the heavy drinking he’d begun. Before denying her existence altogether, he listed a hundred reasons she had gone, a hundred versions and excuses and confusions. He would take a sip and fix his eye on something across the room, sway slightly in a pregnant silence, then deliver his lie in a stern, open-eyed manner: She had charged a lot of money down at the store, and they don’t allow that, he said, they take a person away for that… She bought all those figurines–remember when she filled the kitchen with that army of figurines–that’s not legal, really, bet you didn’t know that… I was astonished to hear him tell these stories with such artlessness. We went along in this way for only a short time before the secret was born. That night came on like something aimed at us across a patch of unimpeded land. Afterwards, he didn’t speak of my mother again. Then, as time passed, he worked diligently to conceal the horrible nature of his secret. Every word and gesture for the next thirty years went into this constant task of papering over, covering up, rubbing out. He swam his drunken insensible self in a sea of lies, never able to put his finger on anything truthful again.
I too labored to say only those things that conspired to this end. Mimicking his lies gave me a person to be, one who had an uncommon facility for persuasion. It was also necessary to think of myself as a small metal vault that housed the secret and kept it from the world. I turned the dial, the numbers twirled, but the right combination would never come up, I told myself. The secret locked in my ribs would never be pried out no matter how many men tracked us down–that was how I loved my father.
Where did we go, Father and I, after that night? Adrift from desert scrub to bald rock, from truck stop to bungalow, dry gulch to parking lot, from shucked-out town to oily pullout, from splintered shack to four-way stop, the barns of clotted hay, the billboards grinning in the sun, the slippery legs of abandoned rail, the midnight music of winking yellow lights, the snare of restaurants dead with time, miles dilapidated into the same placeless place no matter how far, across a span of years that winched by in jerks on a rope around my neck. The truth is I could only imagine being an oarsman or sailor, a lobster trapper, a beach sweeper, anything that would get me away from the desert of back and forth and nowhere in particular where I propped my father’s head up so he could drive the car and smoke another cigarette.
The days rose out of sun and rock and a profusion of scenery that dizzied me. The desert’s endless variations on distance and color absorbed me completely. I changed schools every few months and stole books from drugstore racks, reading anything they had. There was a friend somewhere along the way, Joe, who gave me his green army knife yet whose face eventually dissolved in the vast bloat of desert air. At night my father took us deeper into the cool camouflage of a story he fashioned out of the sand. She waited for us there, the woman he called Mary. She was a saintly figure beset with tragic circumstances–he wanted me to call her mother, to believe in the stories of ill fortune which were meant to explain why she was never with us. He saw Mary in a real way, lighted up with evangelical gold, her soft hand extended to him; fleshed out of old-time quilts, she was, wrapped in his own mother’s faded garb. He passed the meals by drawing her ever different, her tragic illnesses and near recoveries, her childhood among the Chickasaw, her pilgrimages for various causes mixed in with a litany of vague accidents, her thought transference with crows, the long line of injustices that consumed her. His eyes blinked like holiday lights when he spoke of Mary.
Our world was propelled by these pistons of fantasy. We ate our beans and potatoes, we retired deep inside the black and white of variety shows, we spun lies and collected crumpled dollar bills, whatever it was we packed it up and threw it out, combed it back and slept right through, we lay down in spills of flammable liquid and let our eyes ping-pong along the ceiling, we cut time off at the legs and watched for astronomical wonders, we anatomized the conspiracies that hemmed us in, we boiled the clothes and ate the scraps, we put on miles miles miles to make it feel like the yesterday we couldn’t mention. I listened to Mary’s life until I almost believed my mother was the fiction, a character in some novel picked up in a bus depot.
My brother, Quentin–I don’t say his name often, Quentin, whose hands were larger than mine, a ballplayer’s hands he would tell him, who smelled of cut grass and was prone to fits of laughter–he must have been eight when it happened. As my father fell deeper into the ever more florid vagaries about Mary, he never did speak of my brother again either–what a perverted act of will it must have been, to live as though the boy had never looked up from his pillow at bedtime or grabbed his hand to cross the street. Though his name was dropped from our speech, he was with us just the same, following along wherever we ditched ourselves. When I looked in my father’s eyes, the boy Quentin was there: the boy ran for cover or hid behind a passing car, the boy ducked his head or motioned to me to come over there, rode a rail car or jumped a cliff, his blond head like a glint of fish scale. I could feel the crowd of him in the empty stretch of desert. Now that my father’s end has come, I walk the old paths of the French village past the cows in their mud and wonder, did the boy climb out of there before the doctor shut my father’s eyes? Did he manage to escape?
One day when I was of age, I stepped out onto a stretch of black road that sliced across the land and kept going. I hitched my way to Shields, eighty miles to the east, and enrolled in technical school. The course advertised it could turn you into a walking lie detector. I called him on the phone and confessed the whole plan. He said, That story is a good one, then warned me not to get pinned down with some girl. He said, Mary will be coming back before long, her sister has wired me money to pick her up at the hospital, we’ll probably start over near her sister then, the other side of the canyon, gonna set up that engine business there, we’ll come along and see you, in the Studebaker we’ll come along to your place… There were some Christmases I tried to find him, times I had to bail him out, phone calls about Mary in the middle of the night. Without him there, churning in his motor of lies, the silence of my life gathered an ugly absence of definition. My lips tightened into a line, and the places I lived were as artificial and temporary as stage sets. Inside them I was the boy who went along, the son who didn’t make waves, the accomplice.
I learned of his death on a Wednesday, just as I cooked my toast. The policeman on the phone said I was his only living relative, that he had died from heart failure, at least that’s what we think, he said. I formed a picture of a failed heart, which shivered on a plate like a newly hatched bird. The walls of my room fell away, leaving miles of space, miles of space into which I ventured again at every sunrise, my eyes hungry for the sight of him.
For all my unavailing effort with the ladies, I do not get discouraged. Although romantic pursuits, as you might imagine, tend to be difficult thanks to my profession. I am constantly subject to an acute, even painstaking awareness of what is being said and how true it is. How do I speak to women whose sincerity I can gauge in an instant? Whose ethics cannot escape my radar at the first meeting? How do I hold someone’s hand without assessing the pulse for hidden meanings? I tell myself that impressions can be inaccurate, that everyone deserves a chance, that honesty is not always the most important quality. But when I pull the chair out for her or tip the menu up to read, typically it’s a foregone conclusion. I spend several minutes arguing with myself, pleading the woman’s case, especially if she is attractive or lively. And then there are the ones whose truthfulness is intact. But what happens? A tract of hot rock and sand spreads out in my path. I feel the squirm of my own brutish dishonesty. My father’s secret grips me by the throat, and I sit mum and idiotic. Time creeps past. Her tea is only half-finished. Not a one of them can read my dilemma, and the fair creatures grow sullen, or indignant, and amble away.
The greatest luck is to come upon a woman who speaks no English. Some sanguine spirit locked away in her own language. Then I work hard to earn a little time with her. Sometimes she smiles and nods as her eyes search for something in me, the sincerity she has always prized in herself, perhaps. With such a woman I am utterly truthful–it’s best to tell her the truth when she cannot know what it means. I allow myself to disrobe my most personal psychology. I speak in short sentences as though hopeful she will understand something of what I say, yet all the while use obscure phrases, a vocabulary meant to mask what’s said. I begin at the beginning and point to something in the room or on the menu, as though I refer to things at hand. In this way I reveal the tale of my father’s secret.
I tell it quietly, gently, to be sure no one overhears. I tell it plainly, because it resists embellishment. How quickly the secret falls out; the story itself requires no more than two minutes of talk. The life of the moment in its immense stature, in its unimaginably huge aspect, boils down to a sliver of words, just as the whole of the desert used to collect inside a tiny pocked window in some shanty where we slept. To me, it seems I tell the secret the same way every time, almost verbatim, though these opportunities present themselves so infrequently there’s no way to account for the accuracy of this impression.
On my third day here, I met such a woman in the village two kilometres down the east road. She sat conspicuously in the shade of an acacia tree by the old abbey. She was Greek and spoke a very passable French but no English outside of hello and goodbye. She wore a thin dress of pale turquoise, and her teeth were sharp and a bit mangled in their rows. The gray of her eyes was full of affection, and she laughed when I talked because I seemed so cheerful, I suppose, which told her my subject was similarly amiable. I told her the tale of my father’s secret. She listened intently, even as she floundered among all those meaningless syllables. When finished, I hoped she would intuit that we were telling dark things, and in her best French reveal to me the most frightening or monstrous piece of her history, as befits truly intimate friends. But she smiled and gave a short speech about her mother’s lamb tenderloins and left me there to join a group of women who emerged from the abbey like aged peacocks in a ragged line.
There are few women staying with Madame Jute this year. It turns out the slightly aggressive woman from Alberta, accompanied by a young girl, won’t interact with anyone beyond a short commentary about the weather which she gives as they simper down the front path. I looked for my Greek friend in the village, but nowadays even these hidden hamlets are host to crowds that swoop in and out on buses in a matter of hours, making a chaos of things. Occasionally Madame Jute mentions the itinerary of one or another of her guests, but generally I fail to capitalize on these tips. Mostly I sit in the garden, ringed with purple wisteria and oppressive thoughts about my father.
Although the recent confession has worked on me as an interlude of real love might, in the mirror it’s the face of my brother that greets me. The disappointment in the eye, the mouth that’s clever if locked in a single ambivalent expression, a strong jaw and full cheeks, a slim figure that recalls the boy he was, a pair of fidgety hands, hair that falls in whitish sheets, a tiredness that might be mistaken for tenderness. While it hardened my father, rusted him out as if he were a tractor heaped in a field, the secret has worn me into a gentleness I associate with the deep sleep of my mother’s dissolution.
Surprisingly, growing up in the secret’s grip made no overtly destructive claim upon my psyche; I have lived instead the most respectable, prosperous, uncomplicated sort of life, cars and fine suits and appliances in good repair, an upstanding business created out of thin air, donations and elections and holidays, dates on weekends and anything I wanted, generally speaking, all a consequence of what I knew: how to trawl myself in the murk of others’ lies, how to fill my mind with incredible storylines and sleep swaddled in the fibs I catalogued all day long. And who was better equipped to count up the lies, to measure their vitality in mountains of ink, to peer inside their elaborate structures, who was better able to simply tear them up, no weightier in themselves than the slippery pieces of paper on which they were printed?
Two years ago, I got out of bed one morning having never gone to sleep. The rain beat down on the front windows, just as it had done on other occasions, yet in the gloom I hurried to the office. Between sips of black coffee I strapped myself up and set the machine on automatic. I asked myself the standard control questions about Mount Rushmore and so forth, and followed with a series of ill-thought-out questions, on a hunch. I asked about my brother, I asked about the flow of events that night, if any of it happened as I remembered. But the graphs failed utterly. The lines were scrambled, even the control questions suggested lies about nothing. Quentin was the boy I thought about, but who was he? You might never have guessed: in some alternate universe, the secret could well be its own lie, though everything in me denied this. I know all the things I know perfectly, intrinsically, and walk and talk only as someone propelled by their mass.
When I saw her in the common room, she was removing some substance from the bottom of her shoe with a tissue. Her wide stockinged foot was planted flat on the floor. I recognized her as the late arrival from the day before, a Mrs. Hoppwist from England. Her hair, short red and tufted awkwardly, gave the impression she had been through some ordeal. A khaki jacket was tossed on the chair beside her. The sight of her arrested me, though she took no notice. She had a clean spirit, an intimidating forthrightness, this was my immediate read. As I approached, she smiled and rubbed her ear. I walked past and took a book from the shelf. A lovely walk to the village of C–, she said, I recommend it for the birding, spectacular buntings, if they interest you. She stood close and gazed out the bay window into the pear tree grove, which was just past bloom. After a pause, in which I didn’t breathe, I turned, offered my hand, and introduced myself.
We did nearly everything together for the next three days. She was glad of my company, of course, but I was the one who fell rather hard. She felt an affection for me, I have no reason to think otherwise since she frequently took my hand and let me kiss her twice. She spoke mostly of practical things, being English, and formed endless observations of life around her, each of which was more endearing than the last. A false word never crossed her lips.
Yet eventually she asked the questions people ask, What about your childhood, or, where did you grow up, what did your father do? This was yesterday as we circumnavigated the abbey, inhaling the giant honeysuckles that slopped along the path. Before I could think I had uttered the very words that always opened the story, It happened a few days after my eleventh birthday, it happened in the wink of an eye. I went on, My mother had recently disappeared, packed her cases and left the house. Sometimes I wonder if she didn’t simply go on holiday, travel to her mother’s and return many weeks later to find us gone. So we would have been the ones who disappeared. It was Saturday; there’s the blue Barracuda my father drove, the sticky backseat where my brother and I sat, the comic book he rolled and unrolled in his meaty hands. It grew dark as we traveled nowhere in particular, just driving to drive, but my father was inebriated and continued to put the bottle to his mouth every minute. Quentin grew impatient, he kicked me and we wrestled, he screamed when I pulled his hair. Then he rammed his feet into our father’s seat. The car stopped abruptly. He pulled Quentin out, talked to him in a belligerent whisper, put him on the side of the road and pushed him with one hand, then we drove away. I waited for him to stop, but he turned the radio on and blasted the volume, and the Barracuda took another curve into the night. I can still feel the weightlessness of the car swim wide and forever around the curve’s edge. I can still hear Quentin’s figure slip down into the cream of Crosby’s voice, Would you like to swing on a star? I waited for something to happen. My brain raced. The minute stretched and amplified into some carnival freakishness. Or would you rather stay as you are… I jumped forward and pummeled his neck and told him to stop. I yelled as loud as I could, but he must have smacked me with the bottle. When I came to, we were parked in a sand patch dotted with prickly pear. He had passed out in the front seat. It was almost morning.
I slammed the door a few times and poked his ribs to rouse him. It occurred to me he might be dead, but then his eyes snapped open. I said, We have to go find Quentin. I said this again and again, We have to go find Quentin. He pulled out silently and must have gone the way we came, he drove horribly slowly along the curving country road that skirted the desert. We drove all the day, he in his speechlessness, me in my single sentence, and never did see my brother again.
Mrs. Hoppwist turned to me a face of ash. Her green eyes wrinkled in horror. The fact that she had understood what I said only then dawned on me. She said, breathless, I don’t know what to say. I said, This is the secret I’ve lived with all my life; I am sorry to have burdened you with it. She put her arms around me and held on in the grove behind the abbey, the honeysuckle sapping us with a sweetness that might douse all human folly.
Today Mrs. Hoppwist, or Muriel, went home to Kent. We parted tearfully. She will write to me, she says, and return in the fall, on the chance that we might see each other again. This is the best kind of lie: the one that doesn’t know it is one yet.
I have come a long way to make it feel like yesterday. What would it take to remain here and wait for her, or someone, or something? To return to my former life, tiptoeing along that string of smalltime deceptions, tangled with things lost and dead, seems a preposterous idea, however irrationally so. But is it possible I can earn my freedom from the past? Or that running away will end in some mysterious good fortune? If I said yes, it would be a story of fantastic proportions, yet what else is there? The whole desert of time is nothing if not a story of endlessly fantastic proportions, inscrutable to any of us speeding into its blank horizon. Madame Jute could use a man around the place, simple labor exchanged for room and board, I believe she might agree to such an arrangement with a peremptory nod.
Every day I look in the mirror before again setting out across the great white waxy landscape of lies. Then I remind myself, That is you, Samuel, and not your brother Quentin, I say out loud Quentin, who has taken a little trip to fetch moonbeams in a jar and pedals his way drowsily round the equator, skin burnt, eyes wide with fear as he moves in a single-minded straightness back home to you, waiting in this remote hamlet, where people speak another language and the secret dies its many deaths.
Marguerite W. Sullivan’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Denver Quarterly, NOON, gigantic, Web Conjunctions, and Sleepingfish, among others. Her work received a Pushcart nomination last year. She is currently finishing a novel in New England, where she lives with her twins and an excess of ideas.
4 Replies to “The Polygraph Examiner Goes on Holiday”
So nice to read a story that doesn’t read like every other story in every other literary mag. Nice work.
A truly stellar story from one of my favorite writers. Check out a few more terrific pieces at Conjunctions: http://www.conjunctions.com/webcon/sullivan09.htm.
A beautifully-written, albeit tightly wound story. What a creative, unique angle on the main character’s demons, family dysfunction and tragic paths taken.
What a wonderful use of the language. The story kept me confused until it all came falling out in clarity at the end.
Comments are closed.