I got this job by pretending to be my long-dead, long-faced great-aunt. The credentials I listed are my own—I took the tests and got the degree. But my natural personality is more forlornly fault-finding than therapeutic, so during counseling job interviews I channel my Aunt Renata who called me “a beacon of God’s love” even after I stole her Lincoln Town Car and got pregnant in it.
When I sat down with the director of Sun Porch Retirement Village, I talked about goodness and redemption and I never once mentioned worthiness or bad apples. I put my legit GPA in bold on my resume, and then glanced down at it frequently during the interview to embolden myself and my ability to do an impression of a forgiving spirit who believes people are capable of change.
The facility director, Quinetta, asked me if I had experience working with the elderly.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “In high school I worked at a truck stop and there was a table of older men who never left. They sat in the corner near the bathroom and I always gave them real decaf when they asked for it. Some of the other gals secretly served them regular because they didn’t want to brew a whole new pot. But even then I knew that older people should be listened to, and that their specific needs should not be ignored.”
I didn’t tell her that I was, in truth, one of the gals giving them caffeinated coffee because brown is brown or that I whole-heartedly despised that table of guys who called me “Come ‘ere” and who never left tips since they never left, period.
I also told Quinetta about one of my supervised practicum session clients—a twitchy, tender woman going through the change of life. When she couldn’t sleep at night she went out into her van and pretended to honk the horn. She didn’t want her car’s midnight tooting to wake anyone, so she just brought her fist really close to the horn, over and over, until she felt two notches better. I told the client that was fine.
And now, thanks to this fine caliber of edited anecdotes, plus my good grades and my natural capabilities with demeanor-mimicry and tone-seance, I will start my job as Sun Porch’s group counselor tomorrow morning. I aim to help people connect with their inner truths and with each other. I aim to nod more than speak, to convey compassionate empathy with my eyeballs, and to always pull out of that parking lot by 4:45.
For my first day of work I wear a belted dress, white with a printed pattern of yellow flowers. The white is to symbolize surrendering to the process, the yellow is a nod to fear—whether the deep-seated or the yet-to-arise, and the belt is to draw eyes to my darling waist, which remains steadfastly defined even as the flesh above and below it expands and contracts like an inflatable kiddie pool in summer then winter then summer then winter.
Quinetta leads me into the dining hall and introduces me to the breakfast eaters. I see pink plastic plates in various states of undress and constellations of eyeglasses reflecting the overhead light. “Everyone, this is Candice Verlaine. As of today, she is our new counselor. She’s extremely qualified and experienced, and I’d like you all to give her a warm welcome.”
The residents hold their applause and greetings. They continue chewing and forking—most had stopped looking in our direction even before Quinetta said the word “today.” One man at a back table is holding up his cup of orange juice, but I don’t know whether he is toasting my arrival or asking for a refill.
Quinetta clears her throat and says, “I’m serious, folks. Candice deserves your respect and your genuine participation. We are giving this counseling program one last try but if you…she’s here to help… Let her help. Please.”
She then grabs me by the elbow and pulls me down a hall and away from the dining area before I can make a determination about the intentions of OJ man, on which, I feel certain, my fate hinges.
Quinetta directs us into a room that has a preschool feel, but with chairs made to accommodate bigger, higher butts. “This is the multi-purpose room. Anything can happen in here! This is where you’ll be spending a lot of your time.”
I stare at a paper mache foot that hangs from the ceiling. It has been painted green and the sole bears the words “walk on.” I look at Quinetta’s hair and ask, “What did you mean about this being the last chance for my program?” Her hair contains several Bobby pins and I feel entitled to one of them, maybe because of her information withholding, but I don’t touch them.
She gestures to the chairs at the nearest table, where someone has carved the word “rules” into the tabletop. As we sit, Quinetta says, “We’ve tried to implement the group counseling program twice before. First we had a nice woman, right out of school, whom residents wouldn’t speak to at all. She’d get the participants in a circle and ask them to bring their vulnerability to the circle with them and there they’d sit—round and mum. Just a lot of shifty eye contact and lip licking. She quit the second day in tears, saying she felt like the star of a reality TV show about institutions that was also a horror movie about humanity’s inability to connect.
“After she left, I took different residents aside and tried to understand why they refused to participate. They told me (each in their own way) that they didn’t appreciate a woman their grandkids’ age trying to tell them how to live, seeing as her experience with living was pretty paltry. I explained that she wasn’t telling them how to live, she was only asking them to talk about the life they’d lived so far, to get to the deep truth of it all. And Candice, every time I said the word ‘truth’ there would be a physical reaction from the person I was talking to—they’d bug their eyes or snort or fiddle around with a shirt button. It’s like the truth was on strike and the counselor was a scab, crossing the picket line.
“On the second go-around we went another direction. We hired an older man—closer to their age—who had more of an authoritarian vibe. We thought they’d consider him harder to defy, like maybe he’d remind them of their belt-wielding principal. And, sure enough, they talked to him plenty. On his first day they went on and on about their father’s hours at the chicken plant or how their grandma slapped them for putting a fork with the spoons. They told these stories in great detail and talked all about how it made them feel. When my daughter gave me a Dustbuster for my birthday twenty years ago I felt like she was saying it was time for me to start cleaning up my own messes. That, and because she stopped sweeping the slugs off my porch and bringing me bottles from the liquor store. That kind of thing. Or when I caught my husband of forty years standing in a public fountain and fondling a nude statue I knew it was time for us to rekindle our physical relationship. And how did I feel about that? Dry. Dry but… willing.
“But by day two the giggling started. The stories got even more far-fetched. One of them said he’d always had a sexual fantasy about being boiled into a harder version of himself, like an egg. No one could keep a straight face. It became clear that it was all a performance, that they’d banded together to give us the only truth they could part with—blatant lies.
“Honestly I think they did get some benefit from working together on their little show. I know better than to downplay the health effects of communal laughing. I was willing to let it continue as a tall-tale contest, since my ultimate goal was to boost morale, but the gentleman counselor thought it beneath him to nod along to manufactured emotions. What’s funny is that I think the young woman, the first counselor, would have gone along with this pretend-therapy arrangement. It’s hard to make situations align, isn’t it? But that’s my job. As director.”
Quinetta has been talking for a long time and I have fallen into a sinkhole of regret. I don’t want this job. I’m used to being without health insurance. I’m good at being without health insurance, even—when I sprained my wrist I fashioned a homemade cast out of packing tape and two menstrual pads, which are offered free-of-charge in the public restroom near the outdoor tennis courts. This job isn’t worth the headache. I look Quinetta in the eye and say, “I served them regular coffee. The table of older guys, I dosed them with caffeine.”
She smiles at me like I’m a child who made marker dots all over her skin in an effort to stay home from school. “Too late,” Quinetta says. “Your first group starts in half an hour.”
I’ve been in the bathroom for twenty minutes. Stalling in the stalls. The yellow flowers on my dress look more yellow than they did at home—it’s either the fluorescent lighting or the amplification of the fear they represent.
I try again with my self-centering pep talk. Okay so… I am about to lead a counseling session for a group of people who denigrate the truth. How fitting it is that I lied to get this job. How touching. How easy it is for situations to align.
I need to land on a tactic or a strategy before heading into the multi-purpose room for the session. Should I acknowledge the past antics right away? Should I give them a fresh start, a clean slate, a blank stare? Perhaps I should walk in with threats and belittlement. Maybe I should open with a song.
Someone outside the bathroom calls out, “Ma’am, are you still in there?”
I do not answer. I am a liar, not a bathroom hollerer. I leave the stall, wash my hands and exit the bathroom to find a man and his cleaning cart. The cart holds a mop and full rolls of individually wrapped tp. He eyes my waist and says, “Sorry, but… I saw you go in, and I’ve been waiting for you to come out for quite a long time.”
His face tells me that this is more patience than he offers most, and that I ought to be both grateful and sorry. Meanwhile, the wet blue loops of the mop come up to his shoulder, making him look like he has depressed-Raggedy-Andy for a conjoined twin. I say, “If you must know, I have a nasty UTI. My doctor said she hasn’t seen a case this bad since Elizabeth Taylor.”
He laughs and I wince at the friendliness of the sound. He was supposed to be stunned, not amused. “Wow,” he says, “which stall were you in, lady? Maybe I should scrub it extra.”
He is beaming now. I’ve inadvertently opened myself up to banter. My UTI line was intended to be a conversation-ender, not an open invitation to a chat-and-cackle. It’s my fault, I went too specifically absurd by referencing a dead celeb.
I point my thumb back at the door. “I was in the one closest to the hand dryer. I hope you have bleach.” I walk away quickly before he can volley back a response with the corresponding level of wit. I make sure my shoes clack the floor in self-assured tones and I try not to wonder if, perhaps, something about this building enfeebles my ability to lie in a way that gets me what I want.
The participating residents are already in a circle when I enter the room. They’ve pushed the tables back and brought the chairs forth. I’m waylaid from the start, as the only line I’d rehearsed back in the stall was, “Let’s form a circle.”
They’ve not left me an empty seat and there are too many kinds of shoes being offered toward the middle of the circle in twosies. I remember to smile. As I try to make my smile into a shape that is both trustworthy and stern, I orbit the group with my eyes. So this is the cast of our in-house production of “Whose Lie is It, Anyway?”
I do not judge their faces harshly. Now that I am with them, I get the rather lame sense that we are in this together. Their chins and cheeks appeal more to my sense of let’s-get-this-over-with than as a direct challenge of my authority. I don’t feel opposed to them at all, really. I feel drawn in.
As I take in each face, I am momentarily inhabited—I become each participant during the flicker of eye contact we share. Without moving my body or features (but within my self-perception) I hold my jaw and my wrists the way they do. I narrow or widen my eyes and raise or lower my chin as my hair grows, shrinks, curls and balds. It’s an inner imitation. A motionless morph. It’s an homage—not a lie—because the becoming isn’t even a choice.
This loss of bodily boundaries reminds me of when my daughter was just-born. I hadn’t slept in two days, so they took her to the nursery to let me rest. Every time my eyes closed, I became the baby—hazy but alert. My mouth wanted and my arms went like second-hands on a watch that has no regard for time. My nose became flattened by my own insistently narrow birth canal. That sensation was my hormones letting me know who was important to the survival of the species. Don’t forget the baby! You are no one, husk. You sleep in minutes now, but the baby sleeps in swaths.
What could my hormones be up to now, letting me slip into such late-stage shapes? Maybe my perimenopausal estrogen levels are showing me what lies ahead—where I’ll so soon put my shoes in twosies.
That’s a misfire, estrogen—we could never afford this place.
I retire my smile and decide to speak before I feel ready, just in case a sudden start shocks me into competency. “Good morning. Thanks for getting the circle started. I’m Candice. I’ll be your…”
My mouth blanks but my brain fires a list: counselor, leader, server, foe, guru, employee, buddy-ol-pal, listener, niece, straight-man, truth diviner.
Before I land on who I am to them someone else calls out, “Guide.”
I nod at him, the orange juice man, and say, “That’s right. Thank you.”
I make a big show of pulling up a chair. Instead of picking it up and carrying it, I drag it along the floor so I’m contributing something as the incoming hired professional, even if it’s only a scraping sound. I reach the circle and the people closest to me dramatically scoot their chairs over to make room, which means the people closest to them need to resituate as well. Soon the whole room is loudly scraping their chairs out and back, and the noise reaches such a decibel that I am certain they are mocking me. It’s so loud, I suspect that half the people are standing in place and grinding the chairs into the floor, not to make space, but just to contribute to the ruckus. I mentally accuse them of lying through their seats, but no—everyone’s still in a chair, and the sounds they made were in service of my joining.
I sit and the scraping stops. The shape we’ve made is still technically round but has become jaggedy like a fried egg. This could be to my advantage—broken chains can’t conspire without considerable effort. “Why don’t we start with introductions?”
The woman next to me says, “We’ve all known each other for some time.” She points to a man across from her. “He’s actually my brother-in-law.”
“Right. The introductions would be for my benefit, then. Why don’t we make it into a game?” No one audibly groans but I swear I hear several people swallow at me. “Now hear me out, think of this game as a nod to the history of this group. Quinetta told me about your first couple go-rounds—the not-talking and then the false-telling. And I’ve taken all that on as helpful feedback. It has heavily influenced the way I’m approaching this whole endeavor. Have any of you ever played ‘Two Truths and a Lie?’ You’ll each tell the group three tidbits about your life. Two will be true… or, let’s use the word valid—and one will be made-up. Then the rest of us try to guess which tidbit is fiction.”
The self-identified sister-in-law asks, “What do we get if we win?”
I start to say, “It’s not that kind of a game,” but then I remember how it felt to hold her shape—undefined, graspy. “I could pat you on the head if you’d like?”
She rolls her eyes and sticks out her tongue a tiny bit to show she knows she’s being mocked, but I think we both feel as if I had patted her head. I feel like my counseling program really underplayed “gentle ribbing” as a therapeutic technique.
“Who wants to go first?” A woman in a denim jumper waves both of her hands like she’s trying to stop a full-speed big rig from running over a tricycler. She seems young for the group, not much older than I am. None of them feel much older than me, now that I sit among them. I’d say they range in age from early-sixties to mid-eighties. When I pictured myself here I thought I’d be among those who felt like grandparents—at least two generations removed—but I forgot that time has moved me forward as well. People in retirement homes are more like the age of my parents, my elder cousins, my first grade teachers, my cool aunt. They watched a lot of the same commercials I did.
I nod permission to denim jumper and make a mental note of her volunteering. I’ve always felt that wanting to go first is a cry for help.
“I’m Marla,” she says, “and I’d just like you to know that I was the only one here who told the last guy the truth. I really did work at a car dealership owned by a second cousin of Robert Altman and he really did talk over me every single time I spoke.”
I tell Marla that I believe her, while deciding her clarifications and location both feel misplaced. Groups members in the most jagged seats are forced to lean in or out to see her face, and if we are after the truth then we need clear, plain views. “Why don’t we move you into the center?” I look around for a hot seat. The piano bench will do.
I pick up the wooden bench and carry it against my rib cage, the flat top resting right under my breasts. Seat’s taken. I turn sideways to fit through the hole I’d made by leaving, and set the bench down gently, careful not to make a sound. “There. It’s more ceremonial this way. Marla?”
Marla looks like she has been waiting her whole life for someone to ask her to move to the center of the group, but plays it a little cool by not breaking into a full run. She sits on the bench and puts her thumbs under the shoulder straps of her jumper. “As a child my eyes crossed then went back to normal the very next day, and the doctor said it may have been a stress response to seeing my cat Speedy get hit by the mail truck. Two: When my oldest grandson comes to visit, I pretend I’m less recovered from my stroke than I really am, so he’ll keep his visits brief. I do this for two reasons: I can’t listen to any more about his fitness routine, nor face the depressing sight of his receding hairline. No wonder he’s doing so many pull-ups! Number three: I once made love to a stranger in an outdoor plant nursery. He was an employee there, helping me select which type of low-light flower would replace the collection of rustic mailboxes the previous owners had left on the north side of my house. I guess they’d been folksy plant holders once upon a time, but when we moved in they were just rust-covered, open-mouthed eyesores. The way half of them were leaning over onto the others made them look like a living flock… every community has its pillars.” She nods as if to cue to the orchestra, then adds, “Oh! I was married at the time. I didn’t tell my husband and he never found out and now he’s dead. So is that a foible or a freebie?”
Marla looks around the room with her eyebrows raised but no one pops out a guess. She spoke so quickly, it’s possible that they are just now, in the silence, understanding what she said. I give the lag its moment and then say, “Anyone want to venture a guess as to the lie?”
Marla looks a bit rumpled and confused. She starts to speak but she’s cut off by someone calling out, “Dull grandson!”
“No,” she says, “that’s true. And he was such a thoughtful kid. He used to draw spirals, paper after paper covered in spirals. He wouldn’t even consider learning to write a ‘P’ or a ‘7’—he was devoted to expressing this one shape. He said they were his visions and that he had to write them all down. We thought he was a genius, but I think he was just lacking in imagination. He used his one creative idea on a form that occurs constantly in the world without any guiding hands, and he’s been boring ever since. But wait, did I say—”
A man with droopy shoulders raises his voice above hers. “The sex one! I don’t buy it. Weren’t there other customers? Didn’t you care that they might see your butt? And wouldn’t you have wanted to at least sit across from him in a booth before sleeping with him? I know you better than that! When Mallory Hendrix moved in next to you, you wouldn’t even say “good day” to her until she’d been here three months, and you’d confirmed she didn’t make night noises or ask you how you’d slept each morning? You need a warm-up period! Am I right?”
Marla shakes her head. Her once frenetic movements are now muddled and hesitant—as if speaking out loud expended all her certainty. If she could change out of her jumper and into a flowy prairie skirt, she probably would. “Sorry, Richard. That happened too. I had just weaned my youngest son and my hormones were going wild—a relapse into desire. That man in the nursery… gentle yet rugged… you should have seen the way he held a garden hose. He saw the way I was looking at him and what I meant by it. We exchanged several questions and answers via facial expression and then, matter resolved, we really went at it.”
Many of us nod, picturing and accepting this image. I stop nodding when I consider that my head is moving in time with that long-ago humping. “So, the fake one was when your eyes crossed?” I ask, proud of myself for my ability to recall any one of her rapid-fire memories.
Marla puts her head in her hands and her elbows on her knees to support the topple. From inside the curl of her upper body, she says, “Wait.” She lifts back up to show her face. “I messed up. It got muddled somehow—what I meant to say and what came out. That one about my eyes is real, too. I woke up and saw two of everything in my room: lamp lamp, alarm alarm. I went to tell my mom, and she said that maybe my eyes crossed because I woke up too fast. Now, I do chide my grandchildren for their hyper-concerned over-anxious parenting, but Mom could have been a bit more concerned here. I mean, my eyes changed direction in my head! I looked like someone who’d watched too many tennis matches, and she just told me to go back to bed and try starting the day again.”
“You told us three real things? Didn’t you understand the premise of the game?” I try not to sound harsh, but I am irked that she’s undermining the legitimacy I have yet to earn.
In her defense, she looks truly apologetic, bordering on stunned. “I had a lie all ready to go and somehow I told three real things, instead.”
We’re all quiet. Marla keeps straightening her upper body and then lifting her bottom off the bench, but instead of fully standing she sits back down and settles into the curl she’d just left. She does this a couple times, managing to stay and go simultaneously. Maybe Marla wants to move back to her seat and end her turn, but feels like she has to stay and be punished for how her turn turned out.
Finally the sister-in-law says, “It’s okay, Marla. Could have happened to anyone.” Since the sister-in-law pointed out a flaw in my logic before even telling me her name, I get the sense that she’s offering Marla this protective kindness for a reason other than radical empathy. Maybe Marla has memory problems and often gets confused? Oh wow… I had not considered anything like that. Oh wow… I am wildly unequipped for this job.
I add, “Yes, no big deal, Marla. Thanks for sharing.” Marla completes her standing sequence and as I watch her return to relative obscurity, my eye catches a tree branch out the window, moving in the wind. I want to cradle the branch for offering me a touchstone for the world outside this group. Oh, yes, everything else. Leaves, shingles, road signs, the box store across the street where all the purchases beep beep beep. My car, waiting for me. Gum on the sidewalk. Beloved pets. Unwanted children. My own daughter, at school on a coast I’ve never visited. My ex-husband, who the fuck cares. My sister, tapping her toe. Quinetta, at a desk, reworking the budget. Or Quinetta, listening outside this door.
I refocus on the circle—here, indoors. The man to Marla’s left has moved to the bench. While I zoned out, the group wordlessly decided we would travel clockwise. He starts talking and I make a mental note that he’s not the kind of person who waits for a “go-ahead.”
“My aunt used to come to my baseball games and call me ‘Lug Nut’ while I was at bat. Like she’d yell ‘Let’s go, Lug Nut,’ and all the other guys on the team would laugh and joke about my nuts being long and heavy. I couldn’t tell them she’d used that pet name since I was a baby, because being babyish was worse than having bulky balls, and I couldn’t ask my aunt to stop calling me that without acknowledging the existence of my increasingly demanding private body parts, while also hurting her feelings. So I quit baseball and took up smoking. That was item one. Item two: My first wife wouldn’t let me smoke indoors. Item three: I was once fired from a factory job for getting into an altercation with a mechanical arm, but it was complete bullshit because it was my first offense and because I told them they could take the money out of my paycheck to repair the damages. Nowadays we aren’t surprised when someone takes a machine’s side in an argument, but back then it really stung.”
He’s turned slightly red while telling this factory story, a real rile, so it must be true. Before I can rule out one of the remaining tidbits, the sister-in-law says, “Your items were just a list of grievances, Thomas.”
Thomas shrugs. I tell my own shoulders to stifle, to let Thomas have his own shrug.
Marla calls out, “I remember what my lie was going to be! I was going to tell you that I went on Wheel of Fortune in the early nineties, and when I went to spin the wheel, it caught the tip of my acrylic fingernail and a little piece of nail broke off my finger, flew into the air, and landed in the eye of another contestant. And I was going to say the woman with my fingernail in her eye went on to win the game—including the wowza prize at the end—all with one eye squinted shut. And everyone treated her like such a hero even though I was the one sporting a disgraced manicure on national television. I thought that was a pretty good lie for such short notice—show business, a rivalry, plus a comment on the ridiculousness of vanity. I’ve never had a manicure in my life, though, so you all might have smelled a rat. Anyway, when I was talking earlier, it was like the lie flew away, but now that I’m back in my seat I’ve got ahold of it.”
Thomas is looking at Marla like he’s got a new grievance. I thank Marla for the footnote and ask her to respond to what Thomas has shared.
“Oh. Right. I’m gonna say… the baseball thing with the dirty baby nickname. Is that the fake?”
Thomas shakes his head. “Nope. Although, it’s not an entirely unfitting nickname, at this point.” He smiles, then looks baffled, like whatever has just occurred to him would have overshadowed and prevented the smile had it occurred seconds earlier.
Marla takes another guess. “It must be the bit about smoking, then, because you seemed pretty hot about that robot.”
Thomas is rubbing his cheeks in a manner usually reserved for those with beards. Stroking, really. He must be around eighty, so even though he’s clean-shaven now, it’s quite possible that he has spent more time sporting facial hair than I’ve spent time sporting a heartbeat. He stops his stroke on the point of his chin and says, “Those are both true.”
The group reacts—the sharp intake of breaths alternating with the low grumbles of disbelief. The reaction comes fast and too neatly, like they counted off—now the ones suck air and the twos go, “What the hell?” I’d been annoyed with Marla, but now I feel a rising anger, a direct challenge, a group effort against me. I’d been warned, but not until the last minute. There hadn’t been enough time to get my hackles up to a height that could have foreseen this. I ask, “You told us three real things too?”
Thomas looks very poor Thomas. “I really didn’t mean to. It’s like once my mouth started going, the lie refused to come out. I don’t understand it myself.”
Marla jumps back in. “Yes, that’s how I felt exactly! The lie became lodged. And it stayed that way until I came back to my own seat.”
Thomas stands up from the hot seat. “I once called into a radio station giving away tickets to see The Four Tops. The forty-fourth caller would be the winner, that’s what they said, over and over, probably twice a minute. I was number forty-four and yet they refused to give me the prize because I couldn’t remember their call letters, which I thought was silly and spiteful. I knew their phone number, and that’s what matters. I’ll never forgive WEPS, although after that incident their tagline felt more apt. WEPS: We hits you where it hurts.”
Thomas nods a bit like he’s settled something, and then points to the seat below him. “It’s the bench. That was my lie, just now. While I was on the bench, it simply couldn’t come out and when I stood up, there it was, easy. The bench won’t let us lie.”
As I say, “Oh, come on” Marla gasps. “Oh my god. That has to be it!”
Right away, first instinct, I feel resigned. I’ll let them play-act whatever they want, fine, who cares, think of all the preventive healthcare I can get with this insurance. And then, disregarding all pap smears and cancer screenings, I immediately override my own decision. If they’d been more subtle, maybe I could let it slide, but the gall of a persuasive bench gag was too much, even for my newborn hackles. I’m a liar, not a chump. “You two expect me to believe the piano bench has some sort of truth serum effect and you expect me to believe this even though I know that you all messed with both of your previous counselors?”
Marla nods. “It looks bad, I agree. But when would we have been able to plan this? We didn’t know you’d choose this game and we couldn’t have predicted that there would be a piano bench, much less a piano bench with this kind of power and integrity. And remember, I didn’t participate in those other shenanigans! I’m above shenanigans. This whole deal is above shenanigans! What if the bench is made from the wood of an old confessional booth?”
Thomas clears his throat. “Not God… could be a… one of those… sugar pill… placebo effects… an effect, though, definitely.” He’s still standing above the bench as he offers this fragmented theory.
I look around at the others, trying to gauge whether they seem skeptical or implicated or still-awake. The sister-in-law is right beside me. Her profile reveals nothing. I try to remember what it felt like to hold her undefined, graspy shape. I slip into her shape again to see if there’s any change, if the shape feels up to anything, but it feels the same as before— no more defined, no less deprived.
I glance at the branch and tell them that if they want to pretend the bench is magic and sends special messages through their butts, up their spines, and right into their sense of right-and-wrong then they are free to do so. “But,” I say, “I want you to know that my allowing it is not the same as my falling for it.”
The sister-in-law leans over to say, “I’m on your side, just so you know. I was a middle grade science teacher and Newton didn’t have a Law of Woo-Woo. I think Marla got confused by her own enthusiasm and then Thomas worked himself into a tizzy with his grievances. I say you ask Ellory to go. She’s not one for group think.” She points to a woman who must be the most senior member of the circle. Ellory is sitting cross-legged in bold colors. Her nails are painted a dismal red and I interpret her expression as how-did-it-come-to-this?
“Ellory,” I ask, “do you want to go next?”
She eyes the person next to Thomas’s empty seat, the rightful heir. “I could go at any point.” She speaks evenly, giving each word equal weight. People who’d spent less time on earth would want to emphasize I or any.
“Would you mind? You come highly recommended.” My neighbor here says you aren’t prone to bench-related hysteria.
Ellory stands, revealing her outfit to be a full and true glory. Her blouse is brash-red with a black and white cross-hatch pattern at the collar, around the breast pocket, and at the wrists, where identical bracelets bear the same two collar-colors, remixed into checkered squares. Her white hair has been curled and then seemingly finger-twisted into points.
Thomas passes Ellory on the way to his seat. I want to see him bow to her.
It’s apparent that walking causes her some slight pain, but her movements also display poise and a lack of hesitancy. She must be in fairly good health. If she required more medical care, she would not remain in an independent living facility.
Ellory sits down on the bench and recrosses her legs. Her spine is held straight, a self-aligning habit that has surely helped keep her out of assisted living. She looks right at me and says, “The problem is that people aren’t willing to believe facts that don’t fit into their narrative. So their truths shift and recalibrate and some fall away completely, becoming events that never happened.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? Are you calling me a… what are you calling me?” This is from Thomas, causing me to doubt he ever had the forbearance necessary to grow a full beard.
“I was not speaking directly to you or about you, Thomas. It must be tiring to hear every statement as a challenge. You must be exhausted. What I meant is that people—including but not limited to Thomas—only keep hold of the facts that align with the visions of themselves and of this life to which they already subscribe.”
Marla points at Ellory. “Are you saying that the bench has no influence?”
Ellory repositions both her bracelets, which tend to slide toward her elbows when she gesticulates. “I have nothing to say about the bench.”
I should jump in here and do some guiding. “Could you give us an example, Ellory? I’m sure everyone would like to better understand you.”
“Maybe so. Or maybe they don’t want to understand anything other than what they’ve already deemed understood.”
Sister-in-law leans over again to whisper, “I should have mentioned about Ellory—the reason she’s not one for groupthink is because the group can’t comprehend what the hell she’s thinking.”
Ellory continues, “Did you notice that even Thomas’s lie was about his getting screwed over? And Marla’s lie was about being given the wrong attention from the right people or the right attention from the wrong people, just like with her grandson and the nursery employee and her mother’s response to her eye problem.”
“Maybe you’re right about… whatever you’re saying. Maybe our lies are telling. But why couldn’t we say them while we were on the bench, Ellory? Explain that.” Marla says this but Thomas nods to indicate that he’s saying it too.
Ellory touches one of her hair tips. “I have nothing to say about the bench.”
“Do you want to tell us your three items, then, Ellory?” I admire Ellory’s backbone and outfit, but I’m starting to feel nostalgic for the bumbling, inconsistent contestants of yesterminutes. Their challenges were much less direct, their backs much less straight. Maybe they were lying, but it went down easy. Ellory is an indigestion.
“Sure, I can tell you three things. But keep in mind that they’ve all been run through my internal signal-scrambler so even though I think I’m giving two truths and lie, a different signal-scrambler might call them two never-evers and an absolutely.”
“We will keep that in mind, Ellory.” As I validate Ellory, I consider all the vices I’ve given up in pursuit of a longer life—beer, cigarettes, Sweet N Low, Timmy Wayne Trexler, tanning booths, breakfast foods that keep my lips glazed until eleven o’clock. I just might take those up again. Living long enough to master a listen-here tone, while simultaneously living long enough to understand and detest the underpinnings of society does not appeal to me. I don’t want to start talking back to the TV.
Ellory is staring at the floor, but her expression says she’ll start at any moment. Perhaps this is what it looks like to consult your signal-scrambler—eyes down, muffler shuffling. She looks up and speaks in her now-famous even meter.
“As a girl, I would squeeze my kneecaps at all times because I thought it made my legs look more attractive and shapely. At recess, I abstained from tag, since my stiff legs couldn’t move fast enough to get away from nor catch the others. Instead, I stood along the fence hoping someone would notice how nice my legs looked, even though the flexing rendered them useless as legs. Moving on…” Ellory pauses here to look marginally alarmed. Her eyes and her mouth go pancake—round and feeble. Is she pantomiming alarm? Is she truly fighting against the bench’s powers, trying to overcome its will to be able let out her fun-time lie?
She recovers and smiles. “In the early 1960’s my husband and I were invited to a dinner party at the home of one of his senior colleagues. After the meal, I found myself alone in the kitchen with the colleague’s wife. The table conversation had been excruciating—strained, overly formal, and boring to the point that I felt relief when a knife scraped against a plate. But in the kitchen life felt back-on. The hostess had turned on the radio and was swaying a bit as she carried dishes to the sink. The opened window let in night air and a sense of renewal. I was leaning on the counter, nibbling on pepperjack squares, when she bent over to scrape leftovers down the garbage disposal, and I don’t know what came over me but I reached out and pinched her ass cheek. Maybe I wanted to hear her make a sound like the knife made on the plate. Maybe I wanted her to turn around and slap or kiss me. But she didn’t react at all, so there was no space for me to apologize or explain, and the next thing I know we’re back at the table eating lemon meringue pie. I began to seriously doubt that I existed at all; and yet the pie on my plate was getting smaller and smaller and had to be going somewhere, down into something.”
That story took it out of Ellory, like maybe it was too true. Post-tidbit, her spine has exhaled causing her shoulders to settle closer to a stoop. Ellory seems to be catching her breath, or settling some other internal score. She’s let her bracelets wander.
“The last of my three is this: Everyone has a great wound.” She emphasizes each word, so it hits hard while remaining even. Everyone. Has. A. Great. Wound.
The sister-in-law turns to me to ask, “Does that last one count? It’s a little broad.” Before I respond, she takes her concerns to Ellory. “That one isn’t even about you.”
Ellory doesn’t blink. “I am included in the everyone.”
Thomas asks why, then, didn’t she offer up her own personal wound.
“As part of a game? In the middle of a circle? On a piano bench? When everyone I love is dead?”
I need to reinsert myself—whether real or artificial, this thing’s growing out beyond the circle we’ve made. “It’s okay Ellory. You don’t have to justify or defend your choices about what you’ve chosen to share. So, we know the great wound is true. Is the pinching story true?”
Ellory brings her arms in close to her upper body, one crossing her chest and the other under her chin. She nods, yes, bumping her knuckles.
“And,” I continue, “was the knee story true?”
She nods slower, but still yes.
The sister-in-law leans over to say, “Well… that’s my bad. I assumed Ellory would rise above.” She pats my knee. “If it’s any consolation, we all have a great wound.”
Ellory quickly stands, as if to say, “I have nothing to say about the bench” one last time before returning to her seat. Her movements are still poised, though I don’t know which flavor. I cannot tell if she’s shaken up and defeated, or brazenly exiting stage left. I can’t even care.
I look at the branch the whole time I move from my seat to the bench. The branch is not duplicitous, it requires no decoding. It is branch. I will not deliberate.
“Hello my name is Candice and these are my three things. My father spent his night hours in our tornado shelter. The shelter was a grassy mound with a door, out behind the house. We were not to disturb him. If we needed our father after dinnertime, we were to go to mother, who would descend down into the earth to let him know he was invited to our card game. After he died, I went down into the tornado shelter because he could no longer be disturbed there. He was below different ground. Plus, I was an adult, and a legal heir to the house and all nearby holes. I took an oil burning lantern and didn’t know what to hope for. If I found only benign and boring items, why did he choose them over me? If I found anything illicit, then I’d be disturbed in addition to grieving underground. I found a toolbox with a hammer but no nails, screws but no screwdriver. I found several crime novels in paperback. I thumbed through them and found that my father had underlined the character’s names. There was a ruler, bullets, a coffee mug and several cans of kidney beans. A plastic crate held rags, aerosol sprays, and a wrestling trophy that did not bear my father’s name. I realized I was looking for a letter with my name, and that I was not going to find it. When I went back into the daylight, I brought a can of beans with me and read the label as if it were addressed to me. Dear Candice, Store any unused portion in a separate container. Love, Daddy.”
I had meant to deliver a short, punchy anecdote… one that showed how clever and resourceful I can be… preferably one that didn’t end on sad beans. Maybe I’m not in control of what I share. Maybe I’m not even in control of what I believe. The bench has become a seat-powered Ouija board. Was that you? Was that me? Or are we under the jurisdiction of the Law of Woo Woo?
Before I resume, I burrow deep into what I mean to say. I’ll inhabit myself, thank you.
“Everyone has a great wound.” That’s not entirely what I intended, but I see that I have complete control over where I put my emphasis. “I personally have a truly outstanding wound.”
The participants, those I am meant to guide, appear to be leaning in for my final statement—their shoes could touch me if certain knees were extended or toes were stretched. Are they closing in rapt or hungry? Are they on my side? Is my side the one for truth? Is my side in favor of self-protection? Of guard dogs? Is Quinetta outside the door, holding the golden rule or a balance scale or a finish line? Does the branch resent being blown? Is my car still outside? Does the piano miss its bench?
I will tell a lie next, I know I can do it. If I can speak a string of untrue words, then I’m proven both right and mighty. And my ability to lie will mean that they lied, but I’ve already forgiven them, because I so recently held their shapes, because I am so, so rapidly becoming their shapes. I love them for their lying. Right now their lies are my very favorite thing about them.
But if the false words I want to say are instead replaced by a verbal glimpse into my great wound, then I won’t be able to love anyone here. My love only goes where I tell it, and I send it toward control and order, doled out neatly… when I have time, when I’m up for it, when it’s safe to come out. My love sidesteps the limitless.
“I got pregnant… in my… Aunt Renatta’s…”
The Buick LaSabre and the Lincoln Town Car both rev in my mouth and all through me, but I don’t know if either car is fast enough to break the boundaries I’ve tried so hard to keep.
Janelle Bassett‘s writing has most recently appeared in The Offing, Southern Humanities Review, Maudlin House, Jellyfish Review, and Porter House Review. She lives in St. Louis and reads fiction for Split Lip Magazine. Janelle is on Twitter @hazmatcat and online at www.janellebassett.com.