Lying

“At twelve I was cleaning houses, three dollars a week, and no dishwasher or washing machine, you don’t think nowadays about that, but we didn’t have any, so me and this other girl went house to house, week after week, three dollars, that’s it, which was fine then, but anyway, later I got a job at the factory.  All the way down Twelfth Street, where they got that Acme now, well, somewhere around there because the roads aren’t even the same places they were before, so just around there I guess, making hinges for cars, that’s what I did, anyway.

“I used to go to that factory real early, work all day. I used to think about that job, even then.  I wondered where those hinges ended up.  I used to make up stories for each one, and it started with me on the assembly line, to where–who knows?   Alls I know is that there weren’t a lotta cars around the factory, that’s for sure, so  I used to imagine that they got shipped to real exotic like places, and I used to pretend I was the hinge being shipped out to other factories, in other places, packed tight in boxes, shipped off overseas for some cars that would drive around Paris  or Rome or London, see all the things I dreamt of seeing some day.   Sometimes I dreamt of hiding in one of those boxes, but thank god I didn’t, I guess, cause I wouldn’t’ve met Harry, and then, of course, no you,” she says laughing but also matter-of-factly, staring over my shoulder at the imaginary scene  that dances there, behind everyone’s shoulder when they’re face to face with someone reminiscing.

Her face is pale and leathery, yet her laugh-lines still sparkle on the corners of her lips as she smiles and stares through me.  On the wall behind her looms a huge oak cabinet, stained deep amber, chipped and nicked for four generations now.  Thick-heavy frames capture two panes of glass at the top of the cabinet, through which I can see a jumble of curios.  There are plaques, pins and medals, a trophy or two.  There’s a matchbox car, and the pair of golf balls my grandfather aced, a few tiny pictures (I can see my cousin in one for sure, and my father in another), cards, ribbons and glasses (both kinds).  I can see some envelopes, opened, tucked behind a few books:  a dictionary, the Bible, a wedding album, and two magazines:  a Popular Science and National Geographic’s November ’72 issue with endangered mammals and a tear in the spine.

“Oh, the factory was such a mess,” she continues; “There just wasn’t enough room in that place,” she adds seriously.  “I know because I remember this one day a boy I knew who was sixteen, same as me, got killed in the factory because there wasn’t enough room, not to do things safe, anyways.  That’s why the place was all shook and people like Harry had to come in to oversee everything.  Before that, it was anything goes, no matter who nor what, you know, you had kids, some thirteen, working right next to known criminals, sure they weren’t murderers, but no church-goers, that’s for sure.”  I let one corner of my mouth slip upwards in amusement.  “So anyway, this particular boy lived down here on the island too, so sometimes we’d walk together coming home.  Right around a week before he died, we all got called into the foreman’s office, one by one, all of us who looked underage, because they really started cracking down and saying you had to be a certain age to work in a factory.  So we lied, just like we said we would, really, just like everyone expected.  I always used to wonder why they made rules when everyone’s supposed to break them anyway.”

She interrupts a comfortable silence that suggests the end of her story with, “all over the place, hundreds of people, all on different machines.   Well, this one particular day, spreading across the factory like the flu comes this story that this boy got hurt real bad, probably was dead, and the thing is, he’s real young too.  So right away I thought that it was Charlie, the boy from the island, because there weren’t that many kids at the factory, mostly girls and their moms really, and he was kind of always asking for trouble anyway.  Well it turns out that one of the machines jammed up or something, and one thing or another shot out and hit him square in the temple, right on the side of his head.”

They took Charlie out of the factory on a piece of scrap plywood.  By the time he had gotten to the hospital, he was dead.  He had bent to pick up something, and was just caught off guard, well, that what the official report said.  He was the first of two who died that year in the Klein Edgar Divisional Factory #18, Franklin.  Twenty-three more were hurt.

“Well, about a week later, I guess, is when I get called back into the office, the foreman’s office, because they found out that I had talked to the ‘Charlie-boy’ before.  Well, I didn’t know what for, I figured the boy was dead, none for my business.  So I get into his office, and there behind his gray tin desk was the foreman, only not real boss-like as usual, but eyes shooting around and sweating like I had cornered him.  There were two big-wigs on either side of him, standing and waiting, trying to pretend to me that they weren’t even there, just me and the foreman talking as usual.  Anyway, he starts to ask me some questions and then I get it:  these guys were from the government.   They wanted to know why an underage boy was killed at the factory.  So, the foreman starts to ask me about my age, but staring at me, right in my eyes, like he was pleading, but I didn’t know for what.  I knew he wanted something very particular from me, but I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to lie or tell the truth.  But there was no one around to ask for advice, just me and the foreman and the big-wigs.  So I tell them I’m eighteen, or something, and he immediately picks himself up off the slouching position on his desk and sighs as he sits back into his chair, the big-wigs not taking their eyes off me for a second, but I don’t know if I said the right thing or the wrong thing.  Well, they ask me about Charlie, and I tell them what I know, which isn’t very much, but they finally come to the part about his age.  I keep waiting for someone to come in and tell me whether or not I should lie, because I don’t know who would get in trouble for lying in the first place, Charlie, I guess, but maybe the foreman for going along with it,  but it wasn’t his fault.  It wasn’t even his fault the factory was overcrowded, or that we all had lied to him about our age.  He played along like everyone else, but he didn’t seem to be playing anymore.  He knew it, the big-wigs knew it, everyone in the room knew it, but they were still asking me.  So the foreman starts pressing me about Charlie’s age and asking if we ever talked about it, or if I told him he should lie, then all the sudden I thought I might get in trouble, and still, no one to help me, and the big-wigs just keep staring at me, and the foreman’s eyes darting around his desk like maybe somewhere there in the clutter he might find the answer he’s looking for.  I break down crying, I’m not sure why, but I don’t know whether or not to lie to the men, whether it matters.  Maybe if it was Charlie’s parents that were asking me I could’ve figured it out better, but by this point I didn’t even remember Charlie, I was only thinking about trying to so the right thing, which I didn’t even know what it was, I was so lost in the confusion.  So now I’m crying and the big-wigs start in eager at the foreman, and one of them turns around to get a cup of coffee, exhausted.  The foreman asks me one more time about Charlie’s age through his gritting teeth, and all I can think to do is start crying harder, and they think it’s because Charlie’s dead but all I can think of is the lie they’re asking me to tell them, but I don’t know whether they want me to lie about this or that, I don’t even know what the truth is anymore.  Finally the foreman gets up and lets me go home for the day, figuring that Charlie’s death has me all shook up or some nonsense, and I never went back to the factory because I didn’t want to lie anymore.”

My grandmother sits here for a few minutes, sorting through the trail of memories that the story has left her with.  I can’t stop staring at her, like she’s a kid again and I’m one of the big-wigs, staring at her waiting for her to flinch.  She just keeps staring at the ground, and a subtle smile forms on her cheeks, and I close me eyes.  I hear her say in a much calmer voice, “Just never knew when you were supposed to lie, I guess.”

She gets up out of her chair slowly, as fast as age lets her, and walks into the kitchen.  I sit on the couch keeping my eyes closed, still trying to imagine, now, what the island looked like when my grandmother was sixteen.

One Response to “Lying”

  1. that was awesome

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