Believing What Never Was

by Kathryn Etters Lovatt

 

My father was a liar. Not the sorry kind, who didn’t stand behind his word. He kept his promises. Or tried to. But give him fact or fancy, and from that single seed, he could raise a field of poppies.

He pinched a lot of his material from the sorts of magazines found at doctors’ offices or in bathrooms and, without compunction, he proceeded to convert them into personal anecdotes. I first discovered this as I browsed through the “Life in These United States” and “Laugher is the Best Medicine” sections of Reader’s Digest. After a quick stab of disappointment, pride kicked in. He told the stories better. He knew where to start, how to build, when to pause. He always ended on exactly the right note.

Without knowing literary terms such as simile and metaphor, he employed them to turn black-and-white into living color. The sun was never just hot, it was the eye of a stove. A full moon didn’t rise, it floated up like a balloon, split the sky like a blade, beat like a heart. He was a painter, layering color and texture as he went along, and he wanted to be certain you got the picture.

He tried on words and phrases like scouring a closet until he found the one shirt that suited him. On and on he’d go, one image priming another. The idea of less as more held no charm for him; exaggeration was his strong suit. He built one-liners into entire scenes.

Whatever touched or amused him, he fleshed-out, shaped-up and claimed as his own. The way he figured, he operated no differently than memory, which, he reasoned, was mistakenly viewed as a mirror—he believed it more closely resembled a window, one that, with a few good nudges, would open wide.

Daddy wasn’t interested in recording facts, he aimed to improve—a word separated from improvise by a mere suffix. If memory didn’t catch and reflect what came into its frame, what did that mean? It meant that memories were not what happened in our lives, but what we made of what happened. He admired and emulated this technique. Better to make sense with lies than tell the unreasonable truth.

Ironically, he viewed himself as the most honest of men. He cringed at sham. Plus, for the most part, he believed he preached the gospel. My father mastered the fine art of believing what never was.

As he grew older, he began to forsake tall tales in favor of parable. His morality narratives explained and defied the arbitrary ways of the world. He furnished terrible and just ends—disease and haunting and madness—to those who stole poor men’s money, or worse, swindled them out of their lands. Lightning struck hunters deaf, if not dead, who wounded chance prey, then, reluctant to waste a bullet or their precious time, left doe, yearling or a puny-breasted dove to bleed-out in misery.

In his book, men born into fortunes seemed destined to squander them on whimsies and freeloaders. Drained dry, they wandered around town cracking hardboiled eggs on the crowns of their heads and talking to the sidewalk. Or talking to him. Or drinking with him.

My father gladly imbibed with the upper crust, but he didn’t shun the down-to-earth or the down-and-outers either. None of them kept their secrets long when he poured.

Naturally, he appropriated their confidences. He took their confessions and hearsay and cured them with equal parts salt and sugar. Something was preserved, but, luckily, and perhaps purposely, what came out scarcely resembled what went in.

Although Daddy excelled in stretching and straightening everyday realities, my maternal aunt trailed him in a close second. If he was king of imagination, she reigned as queen.

A sudden natural blonde at 40, Mae habitually scavenged tales from the inner sanctum of a beauty salon. Fellow clients assumed those helmet hairdryers shielded their conversations, but my mother’s sister picked up juicy cuts of gossip by holding her head just so, blistering one one ear in order to keep the other exposed and wide open. With a skinny cigarette smoldering between flagrantly red nails, she doled out eaves-droppings in a porch glider, over a game of deuces wild, or riding in the passenger seat of our car.

She knew, or said she knew, which husbands couldn’t be trusted, whose children caused trouble or were in it, what pains plagued who and the cupboards of medicine they took to relieve them. Her Friday standing appointment assured us that before a weekend passed, we’d hear all the nitty-gritty gossip of our itty-bitty town.

Like my dad, Mae also plumped-up and filled-in as the spirit led her. Not deceived, but entranced, I took in every lift of eyebrow and purse of lips. Once she exhausted the local stuff, she could be depended upon to delve into her never-ending supply of encounters with devils, ghosts and death itself. The rapture, a plague of locusts and the wandering dead waited right around the corner. No one ever dug deeper or darker holes than she did. Out of these pits came the moldering and the tormented, those looking for salvation and those seeking revenge. Many, oh so many times, she nearly set me on the path of righteousness.

Occasionally, she brought up Grandpa—or Great Grandpa, or one of our great-great-somebodies—a long-buried but close-enough relation cheated out of millions by a woman who falsely claimed to be his wife. Those dollars rightfully belonged to us and others. Mostly, to her way of thinking, us. My aunt had borne the Bibles gathered from close cousins and far-flung kin all the way to a West Coast court, and, if every speck of proof hadn’t been stolen from her hotel room, well, we’d be eating peeled grapes and boxed chocolates till the end of time.
“Ha!” my father declared behind her back. He had it from one of his reliable sources, my aunt had turned over the accumulated evidence for a fat settlement. She sold the rest of us heirs out.

How delicious, a traitor among us.

I eyed my aunt’s new brick house with a mix of suspicion and appreciation, but I took neither the hope of inheritance nor the idea of familial deception seriously. Early on, I learned that whatever those two cooked up should be considered entertainment, not news. My mother adopted the opposite position.
There she sat, figuratively if not literally, between husband and sister. The part she played, the most constant and faithful of audiences, was crucial: she listened. For the sake of art and harmony or because of her own trusting nature, Mother disregarded absurdity and contradiction. Should a truth come out in some irrefutable and public way—the newspaper, for example—she ignored its significance and nodded as my aunt defaulted to conspiracies and cover-ups. Daddy, on the other hand, never felt compelled to defend himself.

“You ought to know better than to believe everything I say,” he’d laugh. The joke was on us.

At 95, still spinning his yarns, occasionally getting caught, he granted himself a blanket pardon. “I have a lot of stories,” he said, toothless and grinning. “And some of them are true.”

Halfway true was more like it. Which half, who knew?

As if to prove this point, a man known to all as Buddha approached me after Daddy’s funeral. His pale blue eyes looked toward a bluer sky. How blue would my father say they were, I wondered.

“I loved your old man.” Buddha said. “I don’t know if you ever heard him give it, but he had a kind of a funny story on me.”

I knew that story all right. I never drove my father by or to Buddha’s tire center I didn’t get a version, but “Really?” was the only thing I could think to say.

“He liked to tell how I took an airplane trip this one time, and when they came around to see what I wanted to drink, I asked for buttermilk.” Buddha gave me a steady look, like it was high time to set the record straight. “What I really asked for was a glass of sweet milk,” he said. “I never faulted him though. Buttermilk made the story.”

That was another of my father’s gifts, understanding when a small detail made the big difference.

You’d think, sitting at his feet for so many years, I might have acquired his instincts. By blood and tutelage, I certainly came to understand plenty about how to twist matters. I still pride myself in believing I can spot a liar, even a convincing one. I should be able to—it takes one to know one.

Oh, yes indeed, I produced my share of whoppers, but I was no good at it. Leastways, not good enough. I laid it on too thick. I got tangled in the plotlines, the timelines, the once-upon-a-times. I suffered the consequences, too. “Liar, Liar,” sang my young playmates. To be called out not only as a child but well beyond led me to do some serious thinking about my choices. If I remained on my present course, I’d continue to face mockery and humiliation; I would be shunned at pajama parties and other girls would roll their eyes. Or, I could try to change my ways.

And that is how I backed into fiction: the honorable art of fibbing. The crafted fudge. The praiseworthy, myth-making sibling of outright prevarication. With my experience, and with the pitfalls of oral expression and any pretense of honesty set aside, I expected an ever-so-smooth transition.

Pen and paper—and later, keyboard–at the ready, I waited for inspiration, a muse, or one original thought. The notion of original thought perished early, vindicating both my father and my aunt, elevating them not quite into the position of muses, but certainly into the role of first-rate coaches. I’ve never entirely given up on inspiration, but, mercurial and inexplicable, she refuses to be summoned.

More than a few times, I’ve felt the magic over and doubt I’ll ever be able to put a hook on another beginning, nail an ending or polish the mess in between. But storytellers are like Grimm’s twelve princesses, fairytale sisters who disappeared each night through a trap door to dance holes in their slippers. That had to hurt.

Some days, I fear I made the wrong decision all those years ago—I should’ve stayed with out-and-out lying. Surely, by now, I would have improved. With my spare time, I could have joined worthwhile clubs, kept up with the laundry, had more company. Maybe I would have been better company.

I think at those times I’ll go ahead and quit. Take up bridge and weeds. Leave off books, too, since, for the weak-minded, reading provokes writing. Sooner or later though, I expect to backslide.

A day will come along when a young man meets a young woman in a booth at a Mexican restaurant (or maybe it’s country cooking, meat-and-three). “Scooch over,” he’ll tell her and the instant I hear what he says and the flirt in the way he says it, my ears will grow hot as one of my aunt’s and, like my father, I’ll be unable to bridle imagination.

Back to page one then and the task of finding the best word and putting it in the right place.

I always hope for grace—that a piece will come out whole cloth and shining. Not likely. Many drafts will be tossed into the bin; head-banging and insomnia follow. Still, there’s nothing to do but begin again—many times again actually—because, despite frustration and bouts of aphasia, making stories, even ones that break your heart, is pure enchantment. My daddy lived under its spell, and, now, like it or not, so do I.

 


Kathryn Etters Lovatt earned her M.A. in Creative Writing and English from Hollins University. She continued studies and taught at Hong Kong University. She is a Virginia Center of the Arts Fellow and a recipient of SC Arts Commission’s individual grant for prose. Most recently, her stories have appeared in moonShine Review, His Mother, Wild Wonderful ‘n and Whacky South Cackalacky and South Carolina Voices:Poetry and Prose. She lives in Camden SC.

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