An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
By Sarah Kindler
In Saddlebrook, the first freedom we all learned was how to leave town. The second was how to lie about it. Usually this happened around the age of sixteen if you had a friend with a brother with a truck, or sometimes younger if you were particularly ambitious and not averse to bicycling several miles of dusty shoulder. The lying was important because there was nothing outside of town. The town limits divided some acres of cornfield from some others far before you got to another main street. But still there were places you could go, out of view of the road and nondescript enough to seem like you had discovered them. Places that couldn’t be found. Places that could be anywhere. So when you told your mother that you were going to Josie’s for dinner and when Josie told her mother that she was going to yours, you were safe in that secret spot. Safe and free.
Once we started lying about where we were, we began to invent entire personalities. We stole pieces of lies from the internet, from television, or else concocted them in the boredom of always going to the same secret places and having nothing secret to do. We had a set of lies for our parents, a set for our teachers, one for our siblings and one, carefully and painstakingly constructed, for our friends. We held each other to them, judged each other by how good they were and how convincing you could be and how many people believed you. Eventually, everyone believed.
Wanda really had made it all the way to Chicago over the summer break. Harry had found a two-headed deer flat and dead on the side of the road. Kim was meeting a secret boyfriend from the rival school when she disappeared on weeknights and was late for class the next morning. We could be anything when we lied, so we lied about what music we listened to. We lied about who we knew. We lied about the weather and what day it was and what time the party was starting. We didn’t question or second guess or doubt. If you were the only one who showed up to Tom’s, you told him that you were looking for his sister, and if she was home, you asked her what the math homework was and she made something up and you did that assignment.
We thought at first that we were the only ones who knew how to lie, but some of us were paying attention and noticed that the adults did it too. They weren’t flashy about it and usually wouldn’t contradict the obvious, but Josie did notice that her mom always said she’d be home half an hour sooner than she ever was. Michael’s dad was never angry, even when Mike’s little brother sank the lawnmower into a flooded gully and wrecked the motor. We supposed that the lying had always been there and we hadn’t noticed sooner because we’d been brought up to respond to it, like animals to our trainers. It was easy to be obedient to a lie because the lying was instinctive. Sometimes we’d catch them trying to remind us that honesty was the best policy, but honestly who were they kidding.
It was after Kim stopped showing up for class altogether but before the time Tom spent the night in jail that the Lowells moved to Saddlebrook. Their daughter Alicia was our age. We knew she was a little funny right off because although she had learned to drive (proved when we saw the license Mike once swiped from her wallet), she never left town. She never went anywhere. She said she liked to eat dinner with her family. She said she didn’t know anyone in town well enough yet to go to Tom’s party. Naturally we figured she was lying. That’s when someone said that the Lowells knew the mayor’s family, and then everyone claimed to have gotten to know her. After a few weeks though when no one had seen her at any of the places we all were, we didn’t know what to think. That’s how we figured she was telling the truth.
We started asking her questions to see if she’d keep doing it. Where was she from? Chicago, well actually just outside it. We couldn’t substantiate. What did her parents do? Her mom was a veterinarian and treated livestock. Her dad wrote for the news station in Dubuque. We caught a glimpse of his name in the paper the next week. What was the English homework? Read the next two chapters of The Great Gatsby. We were all surprised, the teacher included, when the whole class had done the correct assignment.
The third time Alicia didn’t show up at Tom’s, I decided she needed help. Maybe she just needed someone to show her how things worked in Saddlebrook, and anyways even though I still saw a lot of Josie and Wanda it had been a long time since they felt like friends. But I didn’t say that, because by all accounts we were thick as thieves. Even though the general consensus was that I had probably never been to Chicago like the other girls had. Even when I tried to say that I had been south to St. Louis, not to Chicago. I wasn’t the best of liars.
Saturday morning, my older brother Bobby said he was driving to a friend’s house, so I asked if he’d take me along and if we could pick up Alicia Lowell on the way. I was pretty sure he was headed out of town. He looked me over, rolled his eyes, and said, “I’ll need money for gas.”
“I only have four dollars,” I told him, even though I had about twice that in my pocket.
“Give it here. You can get me the rest later.” I agreed and handed over half my crumpled bills. When we pulled up to the Lowell home, Alicia’s father was weeding in the front yard. I nodded to him as I went to the door. When Alicia opened it, one eyebrow raised, I asked if she wanted to go for a drive.
“Where are we going?”
“Oh, couldn’t say,” I smiled. She sighed.
“No, I guess you couldn’t. Sure.”
“You want to?”
“Yes.” I was delighted, rare as it was to get a straight answer.
“Come meet Bobby. He’s driving.”
We set off, going west to the freeway. It was a nice morning for a drive, sunny and not too cool. We chatted about a class we shared and Bobby chimed in with what he remembered from taking it the previous year. The cornfields flew by. Alicia was easy to talk to. Direct. I found myself starting to imitate the way she spoke by the time we arrived in Waynesfield.
Bobby pulled into the Eat N’ Pump and let us out by the front door, giving me his order (“Tuna melt, a side of eggs, glass of milk. Whole.”) before going around back to fill up. Inside, we sat down in a booth. “Get a doughnut,” I urged Alicia after I placed my order. “They’re why I come out here. They’re the frozen kind, but they heat ‘em fresh every morning in real oil.” Alicia got a glazed and a black coffee. I liked to load up my coffee with cream and no more than four sugars, and my doughnut was a big jelly-filled thing covered in sprinkles and powdered sugar.
“Don’t eat that,” Bobby said, sitting next to Alicia. “You’ll get my truck all sticky.”
“What am I, eight?” I said through a mouth full of confection. Alicia ripped her doughnut into chunks before dunking them in her coffee and popping them into her mouth. “Good, right?”
“Yeah.” She paused. “Is this where people are always going to? Places like this?”
“Nah,” was Bobby’s reply. “The Eat N’ Pump is kind of slow.”
I scoffed. “Sometimes we do come here at night. It’s open late because of the motel down the road. We come out here to meet all sorts. Real night owls and folk.”
“How do you get out here in the middle of the night, little sis?”
“Wanda knows how to drive stick.”
“Yeah. One time she came here by herself when she was real mad at Harry and got picked up by a guy who plays for the Badgers. The handsome one.”
“What was he doing here?”
“Uh-huh.” He scooped the last of his eggs onto a piece of sandwich.
“She has his watch.”
“He probably paid her with it.”
Alicia slurped her coffee. “I’m sorry I asked. I’m always sorry that I asked.”
I turned to her. “What do you mean?”
“She means that she’s new here.” Bobby looked around at her impatiently, then stood up. “C’mon, let’s go.” Once his back was turned, I left the remainder of my money on the table and then followed my brother outside.
“I’m dropping you off,” Bobby told us when we were back in town. “I have people to see.”
“Yeah right. You’re probably just going to drive around until it gets dark.”
“Later,” he said as I shut the truck door behind me. Alicia watched him drive off and then turned to me. “No one here just says what they mean.”
“Sometimes they do. Or at least even if they don’t you kind of get it anyways.”
“Don’t you get tired of not being able to trust anybody?”
“You learn how to trust people. Take Bobby. I’ve always known that he’s never done what he says he has.” Alicia crossed her arms.
“Or he’s always done what he says he hasn’t.”
“Hey. He’s my brother. You don’t know him.”
“Sorry,” she said.
We moved on and then parted for the day, but afterwards I saw a lot more of Alicia. She remained straightforward, which was reassuring. Slowly I found myself confessing things to her. Just small things, whispered things, but things I had never told anyone before. I started to feel like I could tell her anything. She kept calling that trust, but I was starting to feel less trusting of everyone else. When people laughed or smiled or were angry, I wondered why, really. And I wondered why we didn’t just say.
Alicia told me things too. She told me that she was angry with a guy who kept bugging her at school, but that mostly people had started to let her be. She found that as long as she said less and paid attention more, people lost interest in making up things about her. I asked her why she minded the lies. “Because who cares, right? It’s not like any of them really tried to know me. They just made things up. Why would anyone care about the things people make up?”
Wanda and Josie thought she was weird and didn’t understand why I was hanging out with her. “You never go anywhere,” they complained. “You never do anything anymore.” I tried to make up something but I knew they had decided not to believe me. Besides, it was true. I wasn’t leaving town as much except sometimes just with Bobby. I wasn’t going to parties much.
I didn’t go to Tom’s party, the one he threw despite being on probation. The one where afterwards they found Kim in a ditch, thrown from his crumpled station wagon.
The adults all said it was an accident, a tragedy, a real shame. Everyone agreed they hadn’t seen this coming, not Kim, not in this town. Quite a shock. Tom was in deep trouble, the poor thing. It was almost too much–they were dating, didn’t you hear? Losing his car and his girlfriend in the same night. I had heard a hundred versions of the night’s events before Alicia stepped forward. That was when I found out that I had really been the only person not to go to Tom’s that night.
Alicia said she had been there and it was true. Everyone had seen her. So when she said that she had seen who had gotten behind the wheel of Tom’s car even though he had hardly been able to walk, they all believed her. And all eyes turned to my brother. Bobby, who could always be trusted to have done what he said he hadn’t. Bobby didn’t graduate from high school that year. Already eighteen, he was tried as an adult.
I didn’t speak to Alicia much after that. After the trial, somewhere between school and home, I confronted her because I thought I trusted her to have told the truth, but once we were face-to-face I didn’t know. I looked at her standing there in the street and I couldn’t place her. It wasn’t that Alicia always told the truth, but it wasn’t like she was honor-bound to her lies like the rest of us. I had never known when she had lied to me, and I had no way to tell if she had. All I knew was that she had taken my brother from me, and what was worse, I had no idea that he didn’t deserve it.
© 2013 Sarah Kindler