Monday’s Lie 1
It’s Friday, but Monday’s lie made today what it is. I don’t quite recognize myself this afternoon. But no matter what happens today, at least I’ll always know it went down on a Friday.
I don’t know why I even think of things this way, but I always do. Milestones of varying weight have always been marked in my mind with the day of the week. I broke my wrist when Danny Gardner pulled my chair out from under me on a Tuesday in the second grade. When we were both just twenty-two years old, Patrick proposed to me on a Wednesday, which was weird. I had always thought those kinds of things happened only on Saturdays. My mother left for more than seven months in the middle of one Friday night, just after my thirteenth birthday. She came home on a Friday as well. And years later, she died on a Sunday.
Tabbing events with the day of the week is an utterly useless filing system, but my brain has always done it that way. I can’t seem to make it stop.
So even though today is Friday, Monday was the day to mark. On Monday I knew for certain that my marriage was—at the very least—over. And at the very most it was . . . Well, I’d soon find out.
I’m driving to a place I’ve never been, to talk to a man I’ve never met, and all of it to put an end to what I’ve almost worked out is wrong with my life.
• • •
My mother always said never to keep a man for more years than you could count on your fingers. Of course, that was a faster-paced game for her than for most people. She’d lost two of her fingers in completely separate escapades. Her long, abbreviated left hand and the mischief glittering in her eyes made the joke all the richer. Everyone’s scars are interesting, but my mother’s always hinted at epic.
She was the reincarnation of Errol Flynn, which meant that she would’ve had to steal his soul well before his death, but that would have been just like her. She wasn’t as beautiful as much as she was dashing, more pirate than princess, an excess of Robin Hood to put the breeches on Maid Marian. I know that she worked for the government at intervals.
Most people never knew a thing about my mother or her work and never realized the spectacular lack of specifics. She could talk all around it in lively stories without ever revealing a single thing about the true nature of her business. To this day, even I know very little of her global worth. But there was always something. Her gravity bent light like a neutron star. She breathed in the mundane and exhaled ozone. She baked cookies the other PTA mothers were reluctant to eat without being able to say exactly why.
Someone with the authority to do so called her away twice while we were growing up—the longest stretch being for that seven months when I was thirteen. But for the longest time she was mostly just our mother and was as competent at that as she was at everything else. If suburban ease chafed at all, she never let on, and for the majority of our growing up, it was just the three of us—my mother, my little brother, Simon, and me. Occasionally there was an extra jacket, leather or sometimes tweed, on the hall tree for a season, or a thick-banded diver’s watch next to her delicate bracelet one on the dresser.
Her men never left in tears. But they always left.
Mine, however, was still around, and I was fast running out of fingers to count the years on.
You can buy more advantage with audacity than you can with a million bucks. Hello, Mama. I can hear her in my mind’s ear now as clearly as if she were right beside me, as if she hasn’t been dead for more than three years. I spur down the gas pedal, launching my car down a road that matches an unfamiliar blue line scrolling out on the GPS screen toward Carlisle Inc., a company that, among other things, builds aluminum storage and warehouse facilities. It’s almost four o’clock, and if the workweek ends, so do my chances. I need to get there before they all go home.
I’m looking for a man, or more generally for a blue sedan that has been menacing me in its mild insistence on turning up too often in my rearview mirror of late. If I find the car, I find the man. Then I find out what the hell is going on.
I let urgency trump my fear and let boldness chew my common sense to silence. If I can put a gag on anything that feels like wisdom, I’m hoping that all I’ll have left is courage.
The address I’ve entered puts my destination in an old industrial park out past the county line. I’ve never been out this way. It will take most of an hour to get there, and I think there’s a good chance my mother and I will talk in my head the whole way. It’s the conversation I always assumed she’d wanted, the one where I ask how I can be more like her. But in the answers I sense waiting for me over the ridge and the next one and the one after that, in the responses I’m assigning to her, I realize it’s not that at all. It never had been. She’d only wanted me to know her.
I couldn’t have the dates and times and places of so much of her life. Those were classified. But in her games and in her axioms, she’d been more candid with her soul than anyone else I’d ever known. She’d been so generous with who she really was that she is somehow still with me, even now, reminding me of what I learned from her and advising me on what I am about to do next.
• • •
I don’t believe my mother, Annette Vess, thought that mothering and training were the same thing exactly, but a blurred line stitched the two ideas into our security blankets from infancy. In the end, I did feel loved, but also more than a little automated.
It had been a game with her when we were little. She’d give us points for noticing things. We’d stand in the checkout line at the supermarket, and on the way to the car she might say, “Okay, Plucky and Sixes”—Simon was “Sixes” by virtue of his extraordinary penchant for rolling them in dice games—“heads up! We’re playing. Five points: What was the man two places behind us in line wearing?”
“A tan sweater,” I’d say.
“Black shoes with tassels,” Simon would crow.
“Five bonus points for each item in his basket you can name.”
“Vanilla ice cream.”
“Three cans of tuna. Do I get fifteen points for that one?”
Whoever had earned the most points at the end of whatever period she’d set would get signed out of school on some random afternoon for a trip to the ice-cream parlor or the zoo. She could keep an accurate scoreboard in her head for weeks.
As we grew older, the games advanced in their cunning. It was fun at the time, bonding the three of us together against an unnamed Them. But it was impossible to unlearn.
• • •
As for where the games came from and her hobby that was more like a mission to polish our instincts and reaction times, it all started with Paul Rowland. How she got snagged into this web in the first place was one of his favorite stories. Ultimately my mother made a career of, from all I could tell, nothing but sticky intrigue, knowing looks, and heavy, unfinished sentences between her and Paul. I remember hearing the story for the first time once when we had company over.
As usual, they were people I didn’t know and likely wouldn’t see again. My mother was unreadable, leaning back into the sofa cushions, watching Paul sidelong as he recounted to the group the first time he’d met her. Her eyes flashed onto mine. I was eight years old and all elbows and knees when it came to stealth. I’d crammed myself into a corner of the front hallway for its acoustics, half-turned away, miming devotion to my toys. I watched my mother measure the angle from Paul’s vantage point to my hideaway, but I had already calculated it. Even when he leaned in to tap the ash from his cigarette, I still fell outside his field of vision.
My mother tracked from my eyes to the doll in my hands, a ruin-haired thing I hadn’t touched in a year. We locked eyes again, but she drifted her attention to her guests with the pretense that she hadn’t really seen me. She let me stay, but more important, she made sure that I knew she’d let me stay. The transaction tingled at the base of my skull.
Paul was too beefy for me to consider nice looking. I had only just begun to check men for handsomeness, and at the time, it was always how they stacked up against my music teacher. Mr. Noakes was narrow, with longish, dark blond hair that swept his collar. He waved like seaweed in the ocean, eyes closed over a sweet, crooked smile, when he set us playing on our recorders, woodblocks, and maracas. I had decided I was one of his favorites since I’d scored a coveted assignment to the ranks of the new xylophones the school had just acquired to Mr. Noakes’s pride and delight.
Ever on the lookout to shrink Paul in my opinion, I saw him as the anti–Mr. Noakes: too thick even if he was nowhere near fat; too old-fashioned with dark, tightly trimmed hair held down with a sheen of styling wax; and I was sure that Paul would only ever sway in an earthquake. He was solid when he stood, feet planted in line with his broad shoulders, and he went just shy of clumping when he walked.
Because of Paul Rowland, for the entirety of my life I never met a mustache I liked.
“So I get to the door,” Paul said, “and there’s this skinny little girl with wet-noodle posture, droopy hair, and not a damned thing going on behind her eyes. So, I ask this kid, I say, ‘I’m with the Veterans of Foreign Wars membership committee, and I’m looking for Carl Cowling.’ And she says . . .” Paul laughed into his pause. “Go on, Annette. I can’t do the accent like you did.”
My mother let her face fall slack and somehow snuffed the lasers out of her eyes. “Uncle Carl ain’t here. I ain’t seen ’im in a coon’s age.”
I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that such a sound could never have come from my mother, but it slid up and out of her throat with the casual music of mountain mine country, utterly natural and pleasant in the way that things can be only when they fit just right.
Paul sniffled over his mirth. “Oh, she played me, I tell you. She had me going with this story of how there’d been somebody else poking around for her uncle earlier that very same day, which, of course, got my radar buzzing. I mean, who the hell else was hot on Carl Cowling besides me? I had to know. I was half on my way to giving her my name, rank, and serial number while Cowling slipped out the back and right off into the sunset, while this one”—Paul cocked his thumb at my mother—“led me around by the nose.
“Then she finally drops the accent and the dim stare and right before my eyes turns all hard and real pretty like some damned magic trick and says, ‘Look, Carl lit out of here half a minute after you rang the bell, G-man. He said he’d give me five dollars if I kept you busy. He said you were a debt collector. Then you say you’re from the VFW. Nobody tells me anything.’
“?‘G-man? Why do you think I work for the government?’?” Paul said he’d asked her.
“?‘Well, you’re not a cop.’
“?‘I do. You asked me if the men who had already been here were cops. If you were a cop, you would know.’
Paul crowed with laughter ahead of his own, or, more accurately, my mother’s own, punch line. “This one, she just laughed at me. Right in my face, she did.
“?‘Bingo,’ she says. ‘And if I didn’t know that you weren’t a cop before, I surely know it now. Not necessarily. Jeez, mister. So that leaves mob or government, and pardon me for saying so, but you’re not dressed nice enough to be mob.’
“?‘You shouldn’t believe everything you see in the movies, kid.’
“?‘Words to live by, I’m sure. Thanks for the tip.’
“That’s what she says to me! ‘Thanks for the tip,’?” Paul wheezed.
“Anyway.” He swatted the air after catching up with his own amusement. “That whole Cowling business turned out not to be the leg up and big promotion I had hoped it would be, but discovering the smartest skirt this side of the Berlin Wall? That took all the sting right out of losing that little fish.”
“It only took you three more years to bring me into the fold,” my mother replied.
“It was worth the wait. Best damned liar I ever met.”
Later, when they had all left, I braved the subject that had kept my mind stuck in the afternoon’s eavesdropping. “Mama, why does Uncle Paul think it’s good to lie?”
The question dog-eared the moment in time. A thrill sped through me. I’d never asked her anything important before. I’d never pitted her against my private opinion of Paul.
She had always been open and matter-of-fact about everything, never fatigued by any endless volley of curiosity that my brother and I had pummeled her with. But this question seemed even bolder out loud than it had sounded in my head. It hung in the air between us, and for the first time I knew that pricking someone with a question could be more important than whatever answer they might come up with. For the first time, I knew I might have nudged her onto her back foot.
She watched me balance up the weight of the moment. “Five points for you, Plucky. That’s a very smart question.” She turned to the mirror and swiped a dollop of cold cream over each eye. It looked like white frosting going on, but darkened to gray sludge with each swirling pass of her fingertips. “You know how they say, ‘Honesty is the best policy’?”
She continued to massage her mascara into the cream. “If you’re still there, Plucky, I can’t hear your brains rattling. Speak up!” She laughed as she groped for a tissue.
“Yes, I’m here.” I slid the box of Kleenex under her searching hand and knew for sure that she wasn’t put off by my question. And then it was another first for me to find that, as relieved as I was that she wasn’t mad at me, I wasn’t entirely pleased at my inability to rattle her.
“Well, for a change, the great nameless, faceless they is absolutely right.” She wiped her eyes bright. What she lost in wattage without her makeup, she gained in youth. “Honesty is most certainly the best policy.”
Then she turned and took my hands. From the corner of my eye, I could see our profiles in the mirror, her bending down to me, the towel turban making her taller than ever.
“But they make it sound so simple. And the biggest, meanest trick in all the world is how complicated they have made things. They know, even as they say it, that the best policy doesn’t always get the job done. Honesty is like your best shoes.” This was especially relevant, as she well knew, because I kept trying to convince my mother to let me wear my white, patent leather Mary Janes with everything, most recently my bathing suit. “Your best shoes make you feel good and they make you look good, but there are some jobs that just aren’t suited to them.”
“Mama, do you lie to do your job?”
Not a ripple in her composure, she smiled into my eyes. “Sometimes.”
The sapling of my eight-year-old integrity quivered. “Do you lie to me?”
“Not ever if I can help it.”
“But they say you shouldn’t lie!”
“Ahhh. There they go again, huh?” My mother kissed the backs of my hands. “Tell me. Do they know your favorite color?”
I shook my head.
“Do they know that you like the side and bottom crusts cut off your sandwiches, but that you like me to leave the top one on?”
“Do they love you as much as I do?”
“Do they build the world you live in?”
Finally, a flinch from her; from somewhere deep in her eyes it shuddered and drew tears in its wake. “Two points for you, my darling, for stopping to think on that one.” But she did not tremble. Her hands were calm and she took my face between their warmth. She pressed her lips hard against my forehead. She hugged me to her, and the blue chenille smelled of Chanel No. 5. “You’re such a bright girl, Plucky,” she whispered into my hair.
She pulled back. “They do indeed build the world. So do listen when they say things. Hear what they say and weigh it carefully. But when you hear me, remember that I never told you not to lie, baby girl.” She checked to see that it had sunk in. “I’ll only warn you to hate it.”