To (Not) Tell the Truth

For our man, lying is something of an involuntary reflex.
To (Not) Tell the Truth
In my dealings with strangers, I sometimes deviate from the truth. Telling fibs is, for me, something of a nervous tic. When I’m put on the spot or find myself at a loss for words, the, uh, inventive part of my brain sometimes takes over. I’m not a premeditated liar with an agenda. No, as I see it, I’m more of a “spontaneous storyteller.” I am not out to hurt anyone. That’s not to suggest that such white lies aren’t at times wrong. They are. Or that they can’t have painful consequences. They can. Believe me, I know. Thanks to my fibs, I can no longer visit my neighborhood Skyline.

As a big fan of the four-way-bean, I used to visit my local Skyline two or more times a week, enough that the staff recognized me. Then my routine changed, and for a year or so, I got my lunchtime fix at a different location. When I eventually returned to my home court Skyline, all seemed as I had left it. I enjoyed my meal and approached the counter where a woman I will call Linda stood ready to take my money, as she had dozens of times before.

“How’s your dad getting along these days?” Linda asked.

“He’s doing well, thanks,” I said. I knew that Linda had never seen my father, but I thought she was asking about my ex-father-in-law who does frequent the same location now and then.

“That’s good,” Linda said. “We were so sorry to hear about your mom. How long were her and your dad married?”

This is when I realized that Linda had definitely confused me with someone else. My mom and dad are still very much alive, as are my former in-laws. A more reasonable, calm-and-collected person would have paused and politely told Linda that she must be confused. After all, these sorts of misunderstandings happen all the time. No harm done. But in awkward moments like these, I’m not reasonable, nor calm-and-collected. I panic. And I keep talking.

“They were married for decades,” I said, not wanting to be too specific.

“That’s a long time,” Linda told me. “Speaking of which, remember when you used to come in here as a kid?” (Note to reader: I was never there as a kid.)

“Sure do,” I said, wondering what “my” name was and whether or not “I” liked four-way-beans back then.

“Well, don’t tell him I said so, but your son comes in here real late the way you used to. I guess he’s a partier like you were.”

Not only do I not have a son but I’ve never been a partier. I panicked more. I worried that Linda might ask a simple question that I couldn’t answer. Or worse, that a light would go off when she realized I wasn’t who she thought I was. And then she’d wonder what kind of freak would spontaneously appropriate the identity of another person, one he didn’t even know. I needed to find the exit, and fast.

I handed Linda a twenty and told her to keep the change, as I turned and walked toward the door.

“Tell your son I said hello,” she said.

You would think I, with one foot out the door, would just let it go. But I didn’t. I turned and replied, with a smile, “If he ever stops partying, I’ll give him your regards!”

I got into my car and took off. I haven’t been back for six months. Now whenever I get a hankering for Skyline at home, I have to drive miles out of my way. It bears repeating, kids: Lies have devastating consequences.

I’m particularly apt to make up stories when strangers attempt to engage me in conversation in waiting rooms or on airplanes. That’s largely because I’d rather read a book and be left alone, but I can’t bring myself to be flat-out rude.

On a recent trip to the auto repair shop, I found myself sitting in a telephone booth-sized waiting room with another customer, both of us flipping through eight-month-old magazines and sipping coffee that tasted even older. The other guy broke the silence first. (I wasn’t going to.)

“What line of work you in?” he asked.

“Blacktop sealant,” I said.

“No way,” he said. “I work for The Brewer Company.”

I don’t know a thing about the blacktop industry, but that’s a brand I recognized for sure. The waiting room felt suddenly smaller. In this case, I didn’t think I could “spontaneous story-tell” my way through a conversation. And since my car was up on the rack, there was nowhere to go. So I came clean. Sort of.

“Well, I don’t actually work in the industry—at least not now—but maybe someday I will. I just haven’t had enough coffee? I’m always saying random things until I get well-caffeinated. I must have had a dream about blacktop or something. I’m not much of a conversationalist, I guess. If I were, I would go into sales, I suppose. I have friends in sales. You can make some really good money doing that…”

I would have kept talking until quitting time, but the guy seemed a bit taken aback by my nonstop babbling. I think my little rant scared him. Hell, I was scaring myself.

“Just curious,” he said, and returned to his magazine.

I lowered my head and pretended to do the same but immediately remembered another instance when I said the wrong thing to the wrong person. A few years ago, while backpacking with a friend at Natural Bridge State Resort Park in Kentucky, we paused at a magnificent overlook alongside another group of hikers and quickly got lost in the moment. Then one of the hikers, breaking my nature-inspired Zen-like state, asked where we were from. For reasons I couldn’t explain then or now, I replied: “Idaho.”

Had I ever been to Idaho? Of course not. But boy was I in luck. The other hikers’ faces lit up. “Us, too!” one of them said, turning around to show me what I took to be the Idaho state flag emblazoned on her backpack. “What town you from?”

My friend turned and looked at me with a smirk, waiting to hear what sort of tale I would weave. I drew a blank. I couldn’t think of a single town, not even Boise. I stalled with a cough. I thought of taking a stab and saying something Idaho-esque, like “Spudsville,” or something generic, like “Middletown.” Instead, I just said, “I’m from the capitol.”

They looked at me with deflated expressions and my friend laughed out loud. “Funny, real funny,” one of the Idahoans said, as they marched down the trail and out of view.

“You’re an idiot,” my friend said.

At least one of us spoke the truth.

This nervous fibbing of mine has been going on for some time, and Skyline isn’t the only Cincinnati retail icon from which I have been self-exiled. Growing up in the ’70s, every Saturday my best friend Johnny and I would take the Price Hill D Metro bus to the Western Hills Shopping Plaza, where we would basically just walk around and stare at or otherwise annoy pretty girls. We always made time to stop at Graeter’s, where Johnny always got an ice cream cone, and I always got three chocolate chip cookies.

There were several older ladies who worked the bakery counter at the shop and one was particularly unpleasant. We didn’t know if she just found kids a pain in the ass or despised all people, no matter their age. We sensed it was the latter. Yet I was so enamored with Graeter’s chocolate chip cookies that I would have bought them from a known serial killer.

One Saturday afternoon something decidedly wrong happened. As I approached the counter, this gray-haired witch smiled. At me! I looked over my shoulder but no one was there. She smiled again and said, “Did I wake your dad last night when I called?” I had no idea what she was talking about, and I was certain she didn’t know my dad.

I felt trapped. Paralyzed with fear, even. What rough beast would burst forth from this momentarily kind woman if I told her that she was mistaken? A nasty one, no doubt. But I desperately needed my beloved chocolate chip cookies. So I decided to roll with it. My assumption was that she thought I was a member of the Graeter family and that she had to get a hold of “my” dad, Mr. Graeter, about some store issue.

Just then Johnny stepped out from around the corner near the ice cream counter, licking his cone. His eyes lit up and his jaw dropped the moment he saw me engaged in friendly chitchat with the Keeper of the Counter, a woman who normally grunted in our presence. It was too late to fill him in, so I kept talking.

“No, you didn’t wake my dad,” I said. “He was still up.”

“Oh, that’s good,” she said. “I hesitated before calling; I was really worried about disturbing him, you know?”

“I get it, but you did the right thing,” I said. “He would rather know.” She was clearly overcome with the good news that I brought her. I decided to lay it on a little thick. “Dad actually told me that he was glad you called.”

My gamble paid off. Clearly on the verge of a wellspring of happy tears because of my artful fibbing, the woman responded, “Well, what can I do for you?”

“Three chocolate chip cookies, please.”

“Sure thing,” she said, and handed me a dozen.

“I can’t pay for these.”

“No, no,” she said. “These are on me. I insist.”

“Well, if you insist, then thank you,” I said, and Johnny and I made a bee-line for the door.

We feasted on our good fortune and reveled in our vindication: After all those times we had to look into the sour, pickled puss of the Kraken’s grandmother, we were rewarded with a dozen of the best cookies ever. But I quickly realized that I couldn’t walk back into that store as long as she lived, which I assumed would be for a long, long time, as is almost always the case with witches and demons. Henceforth we would have to take another bus to the downtown Graeter’s store to get our sugar fix.

Johnny wondered aloud what different flavors of ice cream they might have. I wondered silently if I would be confused there with the owner’s son. And what I would say. And more important, how many cookies I could make off with.

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Illustration by Kevin Miyazaki
Originally published in the August 2010 issue.

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