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The Lie: A Novel Excerpt from The Lie: A Novel

by Fredrica Wagman

The Lie: Chapter Two

Talking began like a train slowly chugging out . . . the halting, self-conscious awkward embarrassment of trying to start something up because eventually you have to say something . . . you can't just sit there . . . somehow or other you have to throw out a stake and hope it takes . . . somewhere . . . somehow . . . and worse, it was I who had to get things rolling because it was he who sat down beside me and smiled as he offered me the cigarette, so now it was up to me -- my turn.

They say that as you're dying you see your whole life flashing past down to the most minute detail, and I would say that if that's true, which I doubt, having seen people die and noticing that nothing flashes past, they just want to live another minute -- but if it's true, I'll remember the hideousness of ever having to utter my name out loud to any living soul because I've always felt that names are too private -- too personal, maybe the most intimately revealing thing a person has, which the sad gloomy fellow sitting next to me with the astonishing penis fingers seemed to sense because he was kind enough to offer me another cigarette . . . as I began to slowly . . . torturously . . . eke out that dead giveaway, all right . . . now I was caught . . . now he had me . . . because names tell it all . . . the trick was not to die of shame as I looked down, not daring to meet his eyes as I murmured that my name was Ramona Smollens but deep within me on the very most inside place I said it was Rhonda Smollens, whom I sometimes called Rita Smollens in honor of Rita Hayworth, who from the time I was very little I idolized with my whole soul I told him as I looked straight at him for a moment, daring to hope that maybe he'd understand that because of Rita Hayworth I sometimes lost sight of everything . . . schoolwork, friends, parties . . . so mesmerized was I by this exquisite creature, this most splendid masterpiece of pure perfection as I'd gaze spellbound at her as I'd sit in the back of the Egyptian Movie Theater watching wonderstruck on Saturday afternoons -- her red hair flying as her thick black heels were bang bang banging banging banging as she was snapping her castanets above her head . . . this flawless majestic wondrous being with the most gorgeous hands I had ever seen.

And then out of nowhere, like a bolt of lightning streaking out of my mouth -- suddenly I blurted out to this complete stranger that a week ago my father died -- shocked! that I was saying something so personal -- so private to someone I had never laid eyes on in my life . . . and shocked too that I was saying something so far from what I was really interested in discussing which was his fingers -- where they came from -- how they came to look like that -- what their ancestry was -- whose hands in the family did they resemble -- what comments did they arouse -- did people always notice them and stare -- women especially etc. etc. but I didn't dare! -- god forbid! as I began instead . . . falteringly . . . hesitantly . . . telling him about my father . . . appreciative that the old fart had just died because now at least I had something to talk about and for this I felt a ray of real gratitude -- finally he gave me something I could use . . . finally . . . as I self-consciously . . . falteringly . . . was saying that his death had been completely unexpected . . . it had been so hot I said, with no rain, not a cloud, just day after day of unremitting cloudless heat circling the event like a wall and it hasn't let up I said as I took another one of his cigarettes . . . (so much did I need the comfort of this slim white tube that gave off the kind of solace that could get me through as I flicked it around in my fingers, dashing off the ashes and taking puffs) as I was trying to explain . . . tentatively . . . haltingly . . . that no sympathy was necessary because I didn't like my father any more than he liked me, and anyhow I said, he was still around me all the time because the dead don't die . . . it isn't that easy I told the fellow as I kept staring at his fingers, my eyes glued to them as I told him that since I wasn't really in mourning, he therefore needn't feel sorry . . . here we were I said, two strangers -- my father and me, stuck with each other with nothing in common I said, except a few high hopes that it would all work out . . . that something might make it all work out like a little goodwill and maybe some tenderness I said -- which is probably the best there is . . . a little tenderness and a bit of genuine goodwill, but that was never in the cards for us -- we never had much kindness for each other I said as I glanced at the fellow's somber face . . . as a wild desire suddenly soared up in me . . . a madness you could say . . . to make this fellow smile . . . maybe even laugh . . . some unexpected sudden urge to make the gloomy sad-sack sitting next to me in the neat yellow shirt with the dark horn-rimmed glasses who seemed so serious, so solemn . . . happy . . . Suddenly I wanted this fellow's heart to fly -- No more gloom! No more sorrow -- No more painful heavy-heartedness that was weighing him down so bitterly . . . I wanted to take it all away -- yes! -- as I slid over a little closer and smiled as I inched my hand a tiny bit nearer to his . . .

. . . as all of a sudden . . . the ghost of Nathan Smollens rose silently up out of the blazing concrete in front of us . . . then sat down on the bench between us . . . and began staring at the fellow with the steady unabashed glare of the dead looking back into life and still hating it . . . His name was Nathan Smollens I said -- a dentist I told the fellow, who worked on small things in wet little spaces with thick heavy hands and a dark-tempered edgy impatience until last Saturday morning, which seemed like years I said, instead of only a week ago.

And since the gloomy fellow with the sad eyes and the astonishing penis fingers seemed to be hanging on every word, I told him how the heart in Nathan Smollens's massive body suddenly gave out as he was running for the bus. Then I told him that his death was so sudden that I hadn't gotten used to even the possibility that this dark mountain, this fierce tank of a man could ever be vulnerable to anything even remotely human, no less to something that would silently tear him to the ground like one of those old trees you see in the forest lying on its side . . .

And since the fellow was still listening like every word I had to say mattered -- like I mattered and what I was saying was important . . . suddenly all the hidden inequities and angers . . . all the lurking shadowy discontents . . . all the nimble rage that had been hovering just on the edge . . . like a spigot that hadn't been used for years -- a spigot that halts and sputters and then suddenly blasts out its foul orange slime -- it all came flying out . . . everything . . . as I began describing the hospital's crowded emergency room last Saturday morning with my father lying on a gurney out in the hall, not even a cubicle for him to die in properly -- the almost kindly way he looked at me that day, how he almost smiled as he put up his hand, either to beckon me over or to wave good-bye -- I didn't know, I couldn't tell . . . but it didn't matter I told the fellow, because by then it was all too late . . . by then I felt nothing, neither sorrow nor pain nor grief nor fear nor even the smallest sense of loss . . . nothing . . . by then I was as numb as a rock as I stood beside him humming . . . as he lay dying on the gurney.

And as I took another one of the fellow's cigarettes I told him that walking home from the hospital after he died, walking through the park that afternoon past the very spot where we were sitting now, all I could do was beg God not to bring him back -- please! I kept whispering -- keep him! I kept praying as the air around me was beginning to lighten with each step I took, and with each step I took the sun was beginning to shine more and more brightly through all the trees -- so brightly in fact that I almost couldn't see the gift at the center of all that bright white glaring sunlight -- my freedom! I told the fellow as I tried to explain, my words suddenly coming fast and easily in that first great flush of telling . . . spilling . . . confiding -- that first great voluminous outpouring that binds two souls . . .

. . . my father's stamp on my whole being I said, was a dense thick blackness that was always about to explode, an encroaching darkness I told him, that was always sneaking up behind me -- his hand always raised to me like I was a kind of filthy cur . . . this man, I said, who made the earth shake every time he walked in the house mopping the sweat from his forehead with his big white handkerchief and then blowing his nose into it which made the same terse sound as one of those little New Year's Eve tin horns, his only greeting to me a grunt as he'd stare blankly off into space -- no words -- no smiles, nothing but dirty looks and fierce contempt . . . and if he dared look directly at me -- if he dared glance at me for even an instant he'd go wild . . . because it was me I said -- just the sight of me -- just the sound of me . . . everything I said -- everything I did . . . whatever I was wearing -- however I was sitting -- however my legs were crossed, however my hair was fixed, everything -- anything -- caused thundering rages every day at breakfast, every night at dinner -- my shoes -- my shirt, my socks . . . but why the fellow asked -- what had I done (as though I had to do something) . . . what could have been the reason (as though there had to be a reason) . . . I never had a clue I told him, except maybe he wanted a son . . . maybe he hated women . . . maybe he suspected I wasn't his child even though I looked exactly like him -- had the same nose and hands -- had been born into the same house with him where I lived beside him for the past seventeen years, but those were only guesses I told the fellow -- all I could be absolutely certain about I said, was that he hated me . . . I infuriated him . . . I enraged him . . . me -- I was what drove him almost mad . . .

And then one week ago today . . . without a whisper -- without a hint . . . without a moment's notice he was gone . . . he died I said, and so did everything around him . . . all his fountain pens lined up neatly in his desk . . . all his pencils next to his little thing of rubber bands -- all his suits, all his overcoats, all his socks -- all his wide-brimmed Borsalino hats -- all his brown wingtip shoes, each pair exactly the same as the next in a straight long line in his closet -- everything exactly as it was . . . except the life had gone out of all of them -- they had all become flat lifeless objects . . . except for me . . . I had gotten my soul back from the dead I said as I looked at the fellow sorry -- I would have liked a better story I told him as I took another one of his cigarettes . . . as I noticed his sad patient eyes watching every word I uttered with something calm . . . something unhurried -- something slow and not excitable like he had all day . . . and this fascinated me because it was so different from Nathan Smollens --

Maybe because my father died only the week before so there was wild new hope in the air . . . maybe because this fellow was quiet and patient and he listened, which was so different from Nathan Smollens -- or maybe it was his astonishing fingers that my eyes were glued to the whole time I was talking . . . or maybe because he was dark and swarthy with something sad . . . something cheerless and gloomy about him that made me feel comfortable -- even safe . . . I didn't know . . . I could never figure out exactly what it was . . .

The above is an excerpt from the book The Lie: A Novel by Fredrica Wagman. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2009 Fredrica Wagman, author of  The Lie: A Novel. Reprinted with permission of Steerforth Press.