CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Tumbling After
Craig Eklund



He said, “They say the truth always comes out in the end.”

      She said, “But it was spelled out right from the start in big red letters posted square on the door: Inveterate Liars Anonymous. Anonymous? I mean, does a congregation of hardened incorrigible compulsive dissemblers need an invitation to not own up to who they are? Get past that tautology and you’ve still got to consider the paradox of the Inveterate Liar calling herself an Inveterate Liar and that will take you all the way back to the ancient Greek philosopher Epimenides, who said, Anyone who believes me when I tell them they’re not a cretin is a cretin. True story.”

      “What they don’t say is that the end comes out of the truth. Here it is. In black and white. Written in your own hand. Don’t try to deny it. And don’t go and get indignant on me either. I wasn’t spying or snooping or whatever weasely little verb you’re going to try to turn against me. Meddling or prying or ferreting. Nothing of the sort. I dropped a grape, that’s all. I was home from work. I was slipping off my tie, on my way to the bedroom, munching on a handful of grapes. Red grapes. And just as I was walking past your studio, I dropped one. It fell and rebounded off my left knee at a horizontal and then ricocheted off the side of the end table at a forty-five degree angle. It slipped into the joint between the tiles and rolled over the grout until it disappeared behind the prints you have leaned up against the wall. I wasn’t poking about, wasn’t nosing around. I dropped a grape. So I tilted the prints aside and lo and behold what did I find lying there beside my dropped red grape? Your diary. The truth. The end. Are you even listening?”

      “So after examining the sign on the door and contemplating anonymity and Greek philosophy and cretins of all degrees for many seconds longer than any of it warranted, I finally resolved to enter and just as I did the meeting organizer called for everyone to take a seat in what he called and without any apparent irony the Circle of Candor. It was my first ILA meeting and chance would have it yours too and as we all converged in the center of the room and each chose our own molded plastic stackable chair, you claimed the seat directly across from mine and I don’t think for a second that it was chance at work there. But for my part, I hadn’t noticed you yet—that first-timer thing where you try to tell yourself that as long as you don’t make eye contact with anyone maybe you’re not technically even there—hadn’t noticed you at all until we had heard several Admissions and I had even given my own and the Bell of Truth was passed to you and then and only then did my eyes fall—and yes, I’ll say it, fatally—on you. You meanwhile were staring at the object that had just come into your hand—that other first-timer thing where you try to play along without compromising your coolness—staring at the big brass handbell as if you just couldn’t believe that it was in your hands and it was actually called the fucking Bell of Truth and that you were actually about to ring it. Which you did finally and when the chime died down you began to tell your story.”

      “That’s my story. A dropped grape. If only your story were so innocent. I opened it not knowing what it was. Curiosity, nothing weasely. I opened it to a random page. I had no idea what I was getting into. Imagine my disbelief. A guilty plea before I’d given arraignment a thought. Now, for the record, had I seen any of your typical Dear Diary banalities, I’d’ve closed it on the spot. I’m no snooper. But cheap contemplation and sentimental temperature-taking were not what I got by a long shot. ‘I think he’s starting to suspect.’ Those were the first words I read. I was crouched on the floor. My mouth full of grapes (that’s how unready I was, how unsnooping). I had no idea. Imagine. Those words, just those few, awful words. I stared at the page. I read those few, awful words and I read them again. In retrospect, it’s funny actually: Even in the nakedness of self-confession, the truth was hidden within the untrue. You see, I wasn’t starting to suspect. But right there, crouched on the floor, all disbelief aside, reading those few, awful words, right then and only then, I as good as knew. Funny, right? I choked down the mouthful of grapes.”

      “In accordance with the ILA mantra The Lie Tells a Story but the True Story Is the One that Tells the Lie, a first-time ILA attendee’s Admission was supposed to be the tale of how they came to be an Inveterate Liar and so, Bell of Truth in hand, you began to tell your story and although you could’ve guessed that it was the preamble to a dozen ILA Admissions a day, somehow all the same you said it with a straight face: ‘I became an Inveterate Liar shortly after I graduated from law school.’ And thus began the story of your first case—a supposedly straightforward no-fault uncontested divorce given to you by the partners at Lugen, Steele, and Berner because it was so supposedly straightforward and therefore rookie ready, a case that saw you representing a Spanish woman who’d married very young and very rich and not too wisely it turned out. So there you were, the ink on your bar scores barely dry, and in walked this woman still young and extremely good-looking though you were too nervous to even notice—or so you said and with a glance up at me and a smirk and I didn’t know what to make of you yet—in she walked—Aldonza Lorenza, you said was her maiden and soon-to-be-reclaimed name—and nervous as you were, you got down to business right away which again was all seemingly straightforward, there being a prenup and no claims of any violations of that agreement, meaning that the terms were already decided, but this being your first-ever case you were intent on dotting i’s and crossing t’s and were therefore having her spell out for you the exact nature of the irreconcilable differences that led to this amicable split and I was listening and picturing you hunched over a yellow legal pad when you said then and I remember you looked up at me again and said then looking at me again that you started to suspect that she wasn’t telling the truth. Are you paying any attention at all to me here?”

      “Let me qualify that: that I wasn’t starting to suspect. I’m an Inveterate Liar who has been dating for six years and is currently engaged to marry a like Inveterate Liar. Suspicion was going to be my best man. But all the same, he’d always been a quiet, sneaking friend. He’d pop in every now and then, whisper something, throw me a wink, a leer, skitter off again. I was always suspicious, vaguely, generally, but that’s not the same as ‘starting to suspect.’ Not to split hairs. The adjective I won’t deny. It’s who I am: a ‘suspicious’ person. The verb however, ‘to suspect,’ to actively pursue a suspicion, I was doing no such thing. Even as I read those words, those few, awful words, again and again and again, even then I wasn’t starting to suspect. Time was at a standstill and I couldn’t pass to the next sentence, couldn’t go back to the previous sentence, couldn’t bring myself to discover what it was I was starting to suspect as I read those few, awful words, not suspecting at all. I was stuck fast, crouched there, reading those words over and over and over and over. The early evening sun was blasting through the windows of your studio and the dust was caught suspended in the light. No, I wasn’t suspecting. The truth was searing its way through my brain.”

      “I didn’t know how to take the look, the story, any of it, and I guess I was feeling vulnerable there—that first-timer thing and the dirty laundry of my own Admission still hanging over our heads there in the Circle of Candor—feeling very vulnerable I guess, but anyway yes I confess I was taken in, by your look, by your story. And so you started to question her on a few points where things seemed slightly off and it didn’t take much at all and you were surprised in fact when all of a sudden she broke down in tears right there on the spot, leaving you feeling like quite the jackass indeed and wondering whether—thinking really hard about it, as if it were truly the most pressing matter here—wondering whether you ought to stock a box of tissues in your office. I remember these details of your story which you made a point of including and emphasizing, in your own way, your own words—which I am obviously not trying to duplicate here, your words, it being understood that this was all conveyed in your upfront clear-cut tell-it-as-it-is talk, the blunt grammar of fact, the way you organized your thoughts and these particularities seeming to me at the time very lawyerlike I guess.”

      “Exhibit A: the truth. Written in your own hand. Held then and there in my own hands. A full confession. I snapped to finally and tore myself away from those few, awful words and darted my eyes around the surrounding sentences, piecing together the context. To my astonishment, the context was some sort of remembrance of pillow talk. Those few, awful words were pillow talk. You had cheated on me. You had fucked someone else. And you had told him your suspicions about my suspicions that you were fucking someone else right after you’d (he and you had) fucked. That was the context. You had fucked him, said this, laid my name out on the stained sheets between your two naked bodies, but what really enraged and sickened me was that you had fucked him, said this, and then wrote down that you had fucked him and said this. As if it weren’t enough to have fucked him and said it once. How I would love to rest my case there. But it gets better. He had a name. I read on and learned that he had a name and that that name was and was no other than: Heathcliff. Fucking Heathcliff. I flipped to the beginning. I wanted to know what the story was, how it began, when, why, who the hell he was, and where to surprise the two of you in bed, me with a pistol and whichever of several hypothetical bloody endings in hand. I turned to page one. But it wasn’t the beginning. It was all underway. In media res. There was a previous journal somewhere. But it was no matter. I had in my hand all the evidence I needed. Exhibit A: the end. Is this getting through to you?”

     “She cried and cried and at last rallied herself into something not entirely unlike coherence to declare that she wanted it all, all his money and his every last asset, that he had violated the prenup not to mention her worth as a human being and she wouldn’t be bullied into pretending he hadn’t but would take him for all he’s worth, this damn corn-chip man—is what you said she called him and with her very sexy accent—this damn corn-chip man. And you were then obliged to inform us that he was an executive for Frito-Lays, a position which was the source of both the childish-but-sexy-in-light-of-the-accent nickname and also of the fortune into which she married so very rich if not so wisely—a fortune which now, granted what she was saying was true, she might soon be benefactrix to a considerable part of. And so while you ran your bewildered neophyte eyes over the terms of the prenup, she carried on in tearful fury to explain that he had been lying to her for years, been cheating on her, been living a whole other life of hard-drinking nights and high-priced hookers and this while he’s an alcoholic and in AA and telling her the whole time—this being a stipulation of the prenup, you discover—telling her the whole time he’s clean and sober and ‘on the cart’ she said with her accent instead of ‘on the wagon’ which was all almost, you said, as sexy as the way she said damn corn-chip man.”

     “I read on slowly now. From the beginning that wasn’t the beginning but the beginning of the end. My hands clutched the pages, sweaty and fierce, but I read carefully. I was methodical. I would miss nothing in this secret glimpse through the keyhole into my own bedroom. Even the cheap paperback sex scenes I read with a meticulous eye. It was a self-torture that got me nowhere. I had no idea who he was, how you knew him, not the slightest about where to spring my trap. All I learned about Heathcliff was he had a dick and an eager ear to hear me slandered. I discovered a few things about myself though. Things about me (apparently) that you felt compelled to share with Heathcliff in other sick pillow-talk conversations there on those stained sheets. Things about me that I myself had never known but that Heathcliff (fucking Heathcliff) came to know all the same in other sick pillow-talk conversations that you recorded for all posterity in your diary. I never knew, for example, that you and I, my fiancée and I, I never knew that we had tried for over a year to have a baby. I never knew that it turned out in the end that I was, according to the doctors (I apparently visited several), impotent. I never knew either that ever since this first unknown-to-me realization of mine that you in turn shared with Heathcliff (fucking Heathcliff) in sick pillow-talk conversations on those stained sheets, I never knew either that ever since, I had developed such a neurotic fixation on my impotent spermrod that it came to pass that I couldn’t even get it up anymore. That I was, in every way, fucking impotent. I tell you now, before I put a bullet through his brain, Heathcliff will hear it from my own lips that I am not fucking impotent.”

     “And Aldonza asked you then—and you said that by then you were calling her in your mind by her first name—she asked you then if you knew what it felt like to be lied to and for you, of course, what immediately sprang to mind was that not five minutes ago in that very office you were told by none other than her herself what any reasonable third party would call a lie, but that as she not so much moved on from this rhetorical question but expanded it to ask if you knew what it felt like to be lied to by someone whom you’d taken into your heart, someone whom you’d let come closer than you’d ever yet dared let anyone come, lied to not once, on an occasion, but lied to persistently, continually, day in and day out and so deeply and consummately and for so long and so deviously that this person who stood flesh to flesh to your unguarded heart transformed into another person entirely and became thereby an intruder—as she opened this idea up and opened herself thereby, you were overcome entirely. And you realized that, no, you did not know what it meant to be lied to, not in that sense, had never suffered what she had suffered these years under this violence—there was no other word for it—this violence inflicted upon her by this damn corn-chip man and it was then that you were hit by the sudden full and unstoppable realization of how absolutely beautiful she was. Which you said with the most direct look at me yet from across the Circle of Candor. Are you listening to anything I’ve said?”

     “I was hanging on every word. And I was angry. I was infuriated. I noticed that there was something sticky in my left hand. I had (without realizing it) squeezed to a pulp the few remaining grapes that I had (without realizing it) been holding in my hand the whole time. I was irate. But I was also freaked out in ways that went far beyond the semantic hinterlands of ‘anger’ and its many, many synonyms. It all seemed astounding and strange. Your every word astounding and strange. You didn’t sound like you at all. All the thickness of detail and the fluency of your speech were absent here. I didn’t recognize this voice. I had no familiarity with these thoughts. These feelings were unknown to me. If I hadn’t found the diary where I had found it, if I had picked it up (let’s say) at your local library, if it were a book whose cover said ‘By Anonymous’ (shelved, let’s say, in the Two-Timing Super-Bitch-Slut Fiancée genre section), had I not known, I never would have dreamt that it was written by you. The woman I found in that diary, she was a total stranger to me. I knew it was the end.”

      “By the time she walked out the door, it was a fait accompli and you were hopelessly in love with this woman who not an hour ago had been a total stranger and you were determined to do whatever it took to keep the case, which meant that your first true act of love for her you committed that very afternoon when you told the partners at Lugen, Steele, and Berner that this was indeed the straightforward rookie-ready no-fault uncontested divorce that they had supposed it to be. Your first act of love was to tell a lie, you said, and you looked at me. And the lies continued—daily to the partners and everyone at the firm as you built your case and pushed other duties aside and crammed in hours outside of work and with funds allocated to an entirely different case hired a private eye to dig up the dirt on the damn corn-chip-man husband—and the lies continued—to your friends and family when they asked about work, knowing as you did how direly job-riskingly unprofessional it all was, to your mom and dad and brother and best friend, becoming at home and at work and everywhere you went not you but the play-act of you—and the lies continued—bald-faced and stammering to your secretary when she caught you on all fours cleaning up the broken lamp that you told her then had fallen when you tripped while carrying a stack of files but in fact had come crashing down after Aldonza had explained to you the rightness of using any means necessary to bring the truth to light so that she got what was hers and could walk away free to live her life however and with whomever she wished, to all of which you heartily assented especially the matter of whomever should that whomever turn out to be you, which it very much seemed it would as, upon your assent to her urging any means necessary, you and she fell into each other’s arms and made love on your desk, spilling coffee, scattering the files, deleting the text of a brief with an asscheek keyboard press, and yes knocking over and shattering the lamp—the lies continued and threatened worse, for the PI shortly reported back with the news that there were no signs whatsoever of any violation of the prenup. To which you, surprising yourself by how unsurprised you were, replied that that was the thing about signs, that they don’t always indicate the truth.”

      “And it wasn’t just you. The me I found in those pages wasn’t me either. I arrived in my reading back at those few, awful words with which it had all begun, back at the moment of disgusting, despicable, revolting pillow talk when you told Heathcliff (fucking Heathcliff) that you thought I was starting to suspect and I read on as you recounted your reasons for so thinking. The signs that said to you that I was starting to suspect. You said (and wrote that you said) that you saw in my eyes ‘the dim reflection of a hidden suspicion.’ That I was ‘wrung out and haggard looking.’ That when I spoke all you heard was ‘unvoiced worry gnawing at my words.’ And ‘most disturbingly of all,’ that I didn’t smile at you anymore, that my smile wasn’t a smile, but that when you looked at me expectantly I forced myself to ‘muscle up a grotesque grin.’ Not only was none of this apt in describing my recent demeanor, but none of this could ever have been apt in describing any possible demeanor that I might ever exhibit. It just wasn’t me. The Mind of Deceit Sees Its Own Image Everywhere. ILA has a cliché for every situation and the kicker is they’re all true. You see, it wasn’t just that you were suspecting me of suspecting when I wasn’t. It was that even if I were to suspect, it would never look like this. I’m not one to keep suspicion hidden, but I let it flare up. Not one to hold something in that’s wringing me out, but I let it ring out loud. And I’m not one to leave worry unvoiced. I’m a rager, a screamer, a lamp-thrower, a wall-puncher. I’ll admit it, I’m a crier. One way or another, I have my say. This couldn’t be me and I couldn’t see how you couldn’t see that. You were living with another man altogether. Maybe you’d lied yourself blind. Maybe I had lied you a different me. Somehow, in the back and forth of untruth, we’d both come to bounce our thoughts and feelings off a person who wasn’t even there. By the time I put the diary down, I wasn’t angry any more. I was sad. I didn’t know you. You didn’t know me. And you’re still not hearing me, are you?”

     “The lies continued and became bad enough to get you debarred should it ever have come out that you said what you said—that that was the thing about signs. A sign of your own that the PI read right no problem and replied for his part that he’d find whatever signs were called for. So at last your day in court arrived and you played your part with eloquence and the PI delivered on his illicit end and Aldonza shined on the witness stand and the verdict was handed down granting her full desired award and the only shred of sympathy anywhere for the damn corn-chip-man ex-husband was to come retroactively on no other a part than your own after Aldonza drove off with the corn-chip fortune to live as she wished with someone who was not you. You too had been lied to. She took the money and you never saw her again. You didn’t look at me then but I was looking at you and you seemed so unspeakably sad. But you gathered yourself and spoke up again to add that you by no means meant to imply that you were left empty-handed for you had pulled in bank for Lugen, Steele, and Berner and were therefore completely forgiven for the deceit, were more or less patted on the back in fact, and even more than that Aldonza had given you a gift that would keep on giving. She had taught you how to lie. You had a brilliant career ahead of you. And that was the end of your story and I remember your gaze fell to the Bell of Truth in your lap and I saw there for just a fleeting moment your reflection on the shiny brass surface and you looked up at me again, and I realized for the first time what the expression ‘lying through your teeth’ meant—you looked up at me and you smiled wide and bright and toothy—and I realized then that ‘lying through your teeth’ meant ‘lying through a smile.’ But it was beautiful all the same—your smile was—and maybe some things are more important than the truth. ILA never made that into a slogan. And you haven’t heard a word I’ve said.”

      “I put the diary back and stood in a daze for I don’t know how long. And then you came through the door and I remembered what day it was. It was as sudden as that: You walked in, I remembered what day it was. The discord was too much. Between heart and head some vital nerve blew a fuse. You spoke and I didn’t know what you said. Words came out my own mouth and I didn’t know what they were. But none of that matters. It was the end. Maybe the only truth that’s come out is that nothing has come out at all. That and the fact that you’re not even listening.”

     “…”

      “…”

      “No, you haven’t heard a word—that’s the truth and that’s all that comes out in the end.”

      “It was the end and I didn’t know what you said and I didn’t know what I said and likely you didn’t know what I said either (you’re not listening). For it had come to me so suddenly (I’d forgotten the whole time, you see). What day it was. Where it had all begun, six years to the day. And here it was, the end, and it was that discord (beginning and end) that did me in, but maybe it’s time we ask it: How else could it end given how it began? Welcome to Inveterate Liars Anonymous. Step into the circle, ring the bell, and don’t tell us who you are. Of course, the Circle of Candor, the Bell of Truth, and all other like ILA contrivances are intended to create that space where truth can actually happen. None of it is meant to deny that we are, ideally, supposed to be in a Circle of Candor every time we converse with anyone. Ideally, ringing a Bell of Truth every time we open our mouths. The point is that our real world has failed to realize the ideal and that on this designated ground, the right principles can be reestablished. The problem is one of proportion. That twenty by twenty room, that single hour a week versus the whole wide world and every waking moment where lies reign free. That charmed circle is under constant siege.”

      “Because my point is simply that it was all spelled out right from the start, there on the door that first day—the beginning—and there again through the door on the last—the beginning of the end—spelled out already even in that smile more precious than anything, insofar as it was one day to set the contrast for what was to come. Who you were and are and who I was and am. Us. Then and now. Because very long story short that’s what was on my mind—you that first day—the image in my inner eye—that more-precious-than-anything smile—as I stepped across the doorsill running late and didn’t see you at first but made that quarter turn to slip my keys onto the hook and caught then the glimpse of you—the first sign if I couldn’t yet read it—the glimpse in the mirror above the key rack, something about you disheveled would be a mild way to put it, your tie undone and your hair on end in tufts and a glint of the not-all-there in your eyes and the contrast with that image in my inner eye couldn’t have been starker and I guess in some way, although I couldn’t yet read it, I saw it already. What I’m not sure either of us will understand even if in the end the truth does out. I saw it already and although I couldn’t read it the contrast was more than enough to disturb me—straight to the heart disturb me—but still I managed to say to your image there in the mirror and with admirable sangfroid, all things considered, ‘Well, you look like hell, don’t you, sweetheart,’ and then you twisted your lips into I guess it was supposed to be a smile and said from out of some other world entirely, ‘I dropped a grape, that’s all.’”

      “For what’s an Admission, after all, when it comes right down to it? It’s when we ring the bell and confess our lies. These truth-telling sessions are nothing but a running tally of untruths and calling a lie a lie and telling the truth are two different acts altogether. The whole order of things is on its head from the get-go. Such was our beginning. You rang the bell, that very first meeting, and then you didn’t say, Hi my name is Jill and ever since I walked through that door I haven’t been able to stop staring at that man whom I quite purposefully have taken a seat directly across from and whose Admission I’ve listened to absolutely rapt and to whom everything I’m about to say in this my own Admission is not what it seems but in fact a love letter in cipher. Not that I could’ve pled innocent, for my part. Silence is the True Voice of Falsehood. I think we heard that one that very same day.”

      “As if from out of some other world entirely that’s what you said, ‘I dropped a grape, that’s all,’ and when coupled with your general look and demeanor which to put it gently resembled a wet towel wrung out and hung up to dry and that forced smile, the whole dazed and bedraggled picture versus the image in my inner eye, I must say that it was once again, tout bien pesé, with poise and aplomb that I in my turn replied, ‘So that’s your story, huh?’ and told you then to get your ass in gear, we’re late. Because who are you and who am I and what have we been this whole time, that first day to this? On our way out I caught a glimpse of the photo on my studio wall from the shoot at the abandoned farm house, the one where we are posed like the American Gothic couple, side-by-side grim and sour faced, you holding in your right hand in lieu of the pitchfork a red plastic three-pronged toy rake you found lying in the litter-strewn yard and I wondered then if that was us. If for that matter any of the photos in the whole apartment were us, all the pictures taken when you’d come along with me on shoots, the surreal backdrops of industrial yards and tire piles, dank marshes and flowery hilltops, and likewise the vacation shots, at the beach, in the mountains, in New York and London, wearing extraordinary smiles, all those green screens against which we posed precisely for the fact that they transposed us out of our reality and showed us therefore not ourselves—this whole apartment plastered over with two-faced images and what else could our wedding photo be when it joined these others and there we’d stand, got up in the most extravagant costumes of all, stiff and fake, icons of our love? Which thoughts were still cycling through my mind in the car then late and on the way again on the day again the sixth year going there again and you’d dropped a grape was your story—from out of some other world entirely—and what the hell did that even mean and I leaned over into the back seat to verify that the camera was there and as I turned saw your eyes watching me in the rearview and still couldn’t read it but something was there unsaid eating at you and you saw me seeing you and you twisted again that painful smile more a leer and was that you then?”

      “And you began your story. You said you were a born liar. (You looked right at me as you said it.) You said you were a liar in uterus. Nourished on lies through the umbilical cord. Your mother, you said, was a drug addict who had tricked herself into believing, unbelievably enough, that she was not pregnant and kept up the self-subterfuge till she found herself in triage. She tried to lie you away. But you were delivered into the world all the same, six weeks premature, in withdrawal, under false pretenses. More easily weaned off methadone than those pretenses. Those you had to keep up to keep going. Especially the main one: that you were wanted. (And you looked at me.) So were you born into the squalor of a part-time salary, part-time addict one-bedroom apartment with a rotating cast of father figures. You ran down the list of lies that organized your life. Mommy’s going to work. Mommy’s sick. That’s Mommy’s medicine. Mommy will be home to make dinner. Mommy’s doing her best. And what you called the every-sixth-month lie: This is Daddy. You painted the scene in all its color and detail and with more qualifications and asides and warped insights than anyone there (me aside) wanted to hear. For my part, I couldn’t get enough. I was sad and thrilled. Are you listening now?”

      “You parked the car and I grabbed the camera and we set off and still you had that twisted smile on your face and when you spoke you spoke the dust and shards of sense as if your hard facts and solid periods were crumbling in your mouth and we trod down the jetty through the reeds and our feet drummed the wood planks and the crickets droned and the sky had gone deep electric violet and I wondered if we would make it on time. And I asked myself what we were if we weren’t those extraordinary images on the apartment walls and I wondered if we were maybe then just the ordinary—the daily nothing of it, the home from work and banal recapitulations of our days, the easy dinners and nights on the couch in front of the television—I wondered if we had become the monotonous middle of a relationship gone on too long. Because might not that be what compels us, when you come home from work and sit on the couch beside me, to elaborate at length the sordid details of another train wrecked marriage brought to Lugen, Steele, and Berner, the arbitrated carnage and the sympathy it might elicit or the mockery, the sad shambles of man and woman come once together, gone once apart—wasn’t it maybe our dread of the monotonous middle and what we knew that meant for us that brought us to try to sustain it on other people’s endings? As if each ending we rehearsed and then rejected couldn’t become ours because we had refused to stage it, as if we could eliminate possibility after possibility and thereby defer the inevitable realization. This going through my head as we trod down the jetty as we had every year to the day to the hour and minute—six years now—and that look of yours in the mirror all wrung out and you dropped a grape that’s your story—from out of some other world entirely—and something hidden in your eye and your words dust and that grin that I knew but didn’t know yet while the shadows of the reeds tossed about in the dusklight of the past.”

      “Lying was your inheritance, you said. You decided early on you would use it for all it was worth. You formulated a plan. You were as conscious of it as that, you said. At the age of seven, you became a scientist of falsehood. Yours was not the unconscious imaginative play of the child, but the calculations of an experimenter. You wanted to see what imagining and speaking of things that were not might do to the things that were. What you found was that the dissipated hours when you were left alone and uncared for could be made magic. You could conjure it all away. For yourself and for others too. (And you looked at me.) You could paint a different life for yourself for all your classmates, for your teachers, for acquaintances and strangers. You could lie away the tatters in your clothes with a mountain-biking vacation out West. And that’d explain why you missed so much school too. An African safari. Not that Mom wasn’t there to drive you in when you missed the bus because she was wasted on the other side of town in some man’s bed whose name she’d never learn. No, you were at Disney World. The magic was the way that image changed the way they saw you and the way the change in the way they saw you changed too the way they acted toward you. The untrue could transform the true. And so though the years, you lied yourself a life. You lied yourself friends. You lied yourself grades and invitations to birthday parties. You lied your way into PG-13 movies, R-rated movies, lied your way behind the wheel, lied yourself legal to purchase cigarettes. You lied to get your first babysitting job and then the register at the skate-clothing store. You lied your virginity away and then lied it back seven times. You lied yourself eleven different Facebook aliases and their respective circles of friends. ‘Likes’ by the hundreds. (And you looked at me.)”

     “And that would be the worst lie of all—the lie of fake ends to sustain the monotonous middle—because if everyone cherishes the thrill and the rush that impel the beginning of a love affair, the end all the same—the ache and the wrench that grind it to a halt, the pulling away, the sweet sadness as it fades to memory—the messy end makes no less a claim on us, touches us too where we are. It’s the monotonous middle that I could never stand—the frosty emotions and numbed desires, the deep ennui that wears your bones to powder—and if our rehearsal of revised endings by the dozen was meant to sustain it, maybe the desire to throw off that dead weight without undergoing the pain of the end was what brought us here year after year for the sixth year in a row now, to the day and the hour and minute, to reenact Act One Scene One once more, to chase the shadow of that first moment and try to retrieve the rush and thrill of the beginning. All this in my head and the reeds gave way to the open water and the dark shimmer of the lake on all sides, late as always—right on time—enveloped in the deep dusk magenta that we never admitted we’d like to believe the catalyst of that renewal, and we came to the end of the pier and I knew then but didn’t know beside you all haggard and that grin and that look in your eye and you dropped a grape that’s your story. From out of some other world. I took up my camera. And you still aren’t listening.”

      “You lied your way into college. Counterfeited a high school transcript, letters from teachers, your guidance counselor. And when you were accepted, you lied to your mom and told her you were moving to Berlin to work in a cabaret show and you’d never see her again. You lied to get what you wanted and you lied just to lie. In a long digression (your penchant for long digressions and the purpose they served was already so clear, so alluring), you told us that while you were waiting for the bus that would take you to Cornell, you told a whopper that bought you five bucks off a fucking beggar who couldn’t afford more than two-thirds of a shoe sole but was made to think he was helping to round off the fare for a poor kid’s bus ticket out of an abusive household and into a hopeful future. You smiled then (I remember) and you said you even knew how to make the truth lie. (And you looked at me.) You did it just to do it and then you used the money to buy a pack of cigarettes. Fast-forward four years and you had swindled yourself a cap and gown with heaps of academic dishonesty. Diploma in hand, you set about then to forge yourself a career as a fine-art photographer. You had the talent, needless to say, but you readily acknowledged there in the Circle of Candor that beyond a certain level, success in the art world becomes a bullshit game. You had the talent and you were the reigning world-champion bullshitter. (And I looked at you. I looked at you the whole time and could hardly hold back from taking you down on the floor and making love to you right then and there. That’d’ve been the first true and worthwhile thing to ever come out of the Circle of Candor.)”

      “I took up my camera sitting there on the pier in the purple dusklight of the past again as we had every year to the day and the hour and the minute six years now to the day when we first met at the ILA meeting and each told our story and each fell for the other’s story and talked after and laughed and smiled at each other like giddy idiots and went out for a drive and you said you knew a place and you took me here six years to the day the hour the minute and our feet drummed down the wood planks and the crickets droned and the reeds and the shadows of the reeds swayed in the breeze and it all opened to the shimmering moonlit lake and we sat here at the end of the pier and took the picture—the first image of us. And now six years later I took up my camera again and turned it toward us again and you leaned in toward me again and I toward you again as we had every year to the day and the hour six years now to the minute and there is the flash again and the silence. The silence. And then I looked at the screen. I looked at the screen and what I saw on the screen was not that image still in my inner eye—that smile, you that first day—but what I saw on the screen was what I saw in the mirror at home and the mirror in the car and I saw it now and knew it now and knew now that I knew it—words gnawed by unvoiced worry, the dim reflection of hidden suspicion, wrung out and haggard looking, and most disturbingly of all that grotesque muscled-up grin. You are someone fucking else and you are fucking someone else.”

      “So you wheedled your way into your first gallery showing and conned your first critics. One photo in particular was a sensation. The print was large: eighty-one inches tall by fifty-four wide. It was a picture of a huge black wall, utterly bare except for a mirror that took up exactly the bottom left one-ninth of the shot. Reflected in the mirror, filling up the whole mirror, perfectly fit, was a window with nine panes that functioned as a sort of interphoto collage. In the lower leftmost windowpane was the back of a man’s head and in the upper rightmost pane was a photo of a copy of Fragonard’s A Young Girl Reading. The windowpane in the middle was pure white. The middle right, left, and upper left windowpanes were filled by the same shade of black as the wall. The upper middle pane was an off-kilter shot of a bedside table on which sat a photograph of a close-up of a red rose petal. The bottom middle pane featured a close-up of a nautilus shell and the bottom right the image of a microchip. All these images were taken from such angles and distances and with such degrees of focus that they seemed abstract on first inspection. The black that dominated the ground and spilled a third into the figure was a pitch-deep iron-oxide pigment. Before taking the photo, you had painted the wall this black and then you’d painted this same iron oxide shade again onto the print itself (in no fewer than four layers). It was a voracious black, a black with appetite. The mirrored and framed collage was a marvelous technical achievement, and although the images within were borderline abstract and seemingly arbitrary, they played off each other with an unexpected emotional resonance that was heightened by the vast black monotony that surrounded them. It was an astonishing work and the way you sold it was no less genius. To one critic you called it a digital surrealist montage, to the next twenty-first century cubism. To a third you emphasized the existential dimension, the black abyss engulfing the dim spark of nature and human meaning. For a fourth you brought to mind that it was at once the epitome of photographic abstraction and at the same time an image of the eclipse of abstraction, the vanishing of style into the dark of the unreal. To each you fed a different line and they in turn wrote and published them as if they were their own interpretations. It’s been said that cinema is twenty-four lies per second. You beat a feature-length film in a single still.”

     “That’s what I saw there in the photo and what I had been seeing since I walked through the door that evening—that you are someone else and that you are fucking someone else—and I had seen it all before, I already knew the whole story … Are you even listening? Can you hear me? Are you …? Because, you see, I’ve begun writing—this thing, this story—and I didn’t tell you about it because I didn’t want you to know that it’s just not happening for me behind the lens anymore and it’s because I was frightened by that prospect—that my creativity had dried up—that I thought I’d see if I couldn’t tap it some other way and so I picked up a pen and started writing—it was all very spontaneous—and I was afraid if you knew the one—that I’m writing this story—you’d somehow find out the other—that my photography career might be over—and that scared me because it seemed like it’d as much as confirm it—that it was over—and then of course on top of that there’s no little nervousness on my behalf as to whether it—the story—will even pan out and rightly so because frankly it hasn’t—panned out—has pretty much turned into some kind of trash romance novel, which is all neither here nor there but for the fact and this is why I’m telling you: because that was what I saw in the photograph—words gnawed by unvoiced worry, the dim reflection of hidden suspicion, wrung out and haggard looking, and most disturbingly of all that grotesque muscled-up grin—the very image of one of my characters. The whole thing begins when he cheats on his fiancée and this is how I had imagined him—the cheater—suspicious that his fiancée was cheating on him in turn when later in the story she finds him out and is indeed led thereby in anger and jealousy to cheat on him, which sends him on a downward spiral of suspicion and mistrust, dragging her along and bringing to pass many a further act of betrayal and much intense interfiançailles conflict till neither he nor she can any longer even conceive what it means to be true to the other or to themselves. But here’s what has me freaked: I wrote this, imagining it would be just this way if, and here now you were the very image of how I’d imagined one would act if: if one were fucking someone else and suspicious that the other too was fucking someone else. And what makes it all the more uncanny is—and I realize this is totally weird and it’s yet another reason I hadn’t till now even mentioned anything to you and keep in mind again the whole thing was totally spontaneous—I used our names for the characters. The cheater and the fiancée. I’m a photographer don’t forget and maybe the names were part of that instinct for the nominally true, to put some shred of reality at the other end of a very warped lens and render it indistinct—teaching truth to lie—that and of course also admittedly the really sad fact that I suck with names and the point in case here being and I can’t believe I’m telling you this too but the lover boy that the girlfriend goes after as her means of revenge is called—I mean this is how really spontaneous it all was and I don’t know why that name of all names but—the lover boy is called Heathcliff. I know. It was all of course going to be changed, every name, I was planning the whole time to raid a phonebook—before the next draft, I swear.”

      “You had scraped your way out of squalor to become a local art-world celebrity (just about the most minor of celebrity worlds, you admitted, but still). And you owed it all to lying, you said. Your life was a happy parade of mendacity in outrageous costume. You lied the deaths of relatives and pets. You lied yourself into and out of terminal diseases. You’d lied others into loving you and yourself into loving others. (You did not look at me then. But I could see you wanted to.) You perjured yourself at length in a court of law and for no reason at all when you were called in as a witness of a hit-and-run. The guilty driver got off scot-free. You deceived priests and policemen, boyfriends and best friends, old ladies, young children, small animals, large corporations, and supermarket self-check registers. You lied fluently in two languages, with an occasional semiarticulate fib in a third. You lied on enough official federal and state forms to bring consecutive life sentences on your head. If ever you were caught. But you never were. No deception was ever snatched back out your hands. No word was ever retracted. No apology ever spoken. Comeuppance never come. And you stopped there. That was it. But I couldn’t let you leave it there. That couldn’t be it. And so I looked at you and said, ‘Well then why the hell are you here?’ And you looked right at me, directly in my eyes, I remember the way you looked at me. And you said, ‘Because I am so, so lonely.’”

     “So in the end it might be that what I saw in the photograph was what the part of me that held the pen had been seeing all along—you not you, that grin—had maybe known all along—that you were not yourself, that you were fucking someone else—and maybe it was all less about resuscitating my own creativity and more about me and you and bringing myself to finally read the signs—in my own writing and only then through my own eyes—and come to see the truth at last. Maybe the story was my way of coming to grips with the end of us. On the other hand maybe it’s something stranger altogether. Maybe—and I can’t help but think here of that taboo of many so-called primitive cultures against using true names in certain contexts—maybe it has something to do with the fact that I used our names. Maybe—impossible as it sounds—maybe because I used our names you are acting off my script somehow and have become the someone else that I created and done then the deed that I had written for you. I’ve lied lies nearly so potent before. But either way this is no absolution—you did the deed all the same, you are cheating on me, you are fucking someone else and yes fuck you for that—this is no absolution, this is a dare. I know how this ends. And if that’s where we have to go, then go there we will.”

     “And then you smiled and you held the Bell of Truth upside down, open end in the air, held it there like a flower and smiled this wonderful vague smile. I didn’t know what part was bullshit and what wasn’t. I was in love,” he said.

     “They say in the end the truth will out,” she said.



Craig Eklund’s “The Taxidermist” appeared in Conjunctions:61, A Menagerie.