Lying As a Way of Life
By Lewis Nordan
Once when I was a boy my father took me hunting with him. We were quail hunting on posted land, private property, and we had to cross through a barbed-wire fence to enter a large field. There was a No Trespassing sign on the fence post where I leaned my single barrel shotgun while I held the wire down with my foot so that my father could sneak through. Then he held the wire for me.
With us we had a sorry, no-count yellow dog with a long tail and little sense of smell or direction, and none of responsibility. Throughout the morning the dog was worthless as a hunting companion. It raced through the stubble fields and scared off whatever quail might have been nearby, it chased rabbits, scratched fleas, humped our legs when there was a spare moment.
As hunters, my father and I were as sorry as the dog. I did not look terrible—I was wearing bluejeans and a gabardine shirt and looked more like the schoolchild that I was than a hunter. My father looked worse. He was drunk and dirty and wore white painter’s overalls, which he still had on after work, and on his feet were a pair of yellow plastic shoes that somebody had told him were the latest thing and for which he had paid five dollars. My father kept shouting at the dog, “God damn it, Blue! God damn it!” Why my father should have named this sorry yellow dog Blue is anybody’s guess.
I was honored to have been invited to come along with my father on a birdhunt, but I was also ashamed to be seen with him and this impossible dog. All my imaginings of woodland hunters came from Field and Stream, with its handsome caretakers of the wilderness, crisp canvas jackets, briar pipes, oiled leather, blued gun barrels and mahogany stocks.
I was consoled only that no one would have a chance to see and judge us, here in a field far back from the road.
And then that hope was dashed. Across the field my father and I spotted another party of hunters. These men might as well have stepped straight from the pages of Field and Stream. They were handsome men. Their shotguns were not the rusted-out single-shot Winchesters that my father and I carried. They were Browning automatics with gold inlay and engraved scenes of pheasants on the side. They had red rubber recoil pads on the gun butts and ribbed barrels. There were a dozen or more of these men. Their dogs were purebred retrievers, trained in St. Louis, holding points, backing each other like statues until the hunters were in position to fire.
It was the governor of the state and his party. The governor was a handsome elegant man, and I recognized him from the television news. The whole party of men were crack shots. A small covey of birds rose up in front of them and pop pop pop, the gunpowder burned and feathers flew and the bird carcasses dropped to the earth where gleaming dogs with mouths as soft as cotton picked them up and handed them over to the smiling gentlemen.
Our own dog, this yellow brain-damaged oversexed rabbit chaser that my father called Blue, was delighted to find that we had company. Blue raced over to the governor’s party. He broke the points of the other dogs, the dismayed dogs, I should say, since these canine aristocrats had never actually known such creatures as Blue even existed. He tried to get up a rabbit chase, he humped a few legs, he nipped a few ankles, sniffed a few crotches, barked and got into a fight with a frightened puppy that seemed to be in training.
The governor and his party were tolerant, honorable men, and for a time they were patient, but finally they were pushed beyond the point of human tolerance. When one of the hunters pushed Blue away with his foot—at this point Blue had hold of the man’s pants leg and was snarling and yanking at the cloth—my father called the man a son of a bitch and threatened to sue him. “That’s a valuable dog!” my father said.
The governor himself turned away, so as not to have to speak with us, but other men in the party gave us firm advice, on the order of threats of legal action, that we were poaching on private property and if my father did not want to spend a night in jail he would find somewhere else to hunt.
We left the woods and fields in disgrace, and—here is the punchline of the anecdote, which proves that my father was not utterly disgraced—even after this my father referred to the incident as “the day me and my boy went hunting with the governor.”
I’ve told this story many times over the years. It is a part of who I am, one of many deep important memories that have shaped my life. The thing is, though, not one word of the story I’ve just related is true. This is a deep important memory with no historical basis, you might say.
My father and I never went hunting together until I was grown and married, and then only once and it was squirrel hunting, not quail hunting, and with a lot of other people, not alone together. In fact, I never went quail hunting with anybody at all, let alone my father, and we never owned that yellow dog, though now, living in Pittsburgh, I have a dog that more or less fits this description. I never saw the governor of the state of Mississippi, except once when I went to Boys State in Jackson, and I can assure you that J.P. Coleman was neither handsome nor elegant nor tolerant and that he did not conform to any other description of him that I may have implied here. I once heard someone in Arkansas use the phrase “dogs trained in St. Louis” and so I adapted the phrase to my story (it’s an intriguing phrase and worthy of a story, but why St. Louis?, I have always wondered). I myself, and not my father, wore those yellow plastic shoes, but not on a hunting trip. I wore them off to college and was thrown in the duck pond at the Jackson Zoo as punishment for an unacceptable fashion statement (the shoes came off and sank to the bottom of the duck pond where I suppose they still lie, these thirty-odd years later, with the same approximate half-life as plutonium). And if you should multiply all my father’s wit and humor and capacity for self-directed irony by the number one million, he still never would have been capable of making an ironic judgment upon himself about “the day we went hunting with the governor.” Nothing about this story ever happened. And finally to make an end of this lengthy point, the fact is, I never even knew my father. My father died when I was eighteen months old and my mother remarried when I was eight years old to a man whom I called Daddy and on whom all the fathers in my stories are based. He is my stepfather, actually. So my stepfather, not my natural father, is the man to whom none of what I’ve been writing applies.
The one true thing about this tale that I have just told is that I have been telling it as the truth for many years. Only recently did it occur to me that none of this had ever happened. I mean, I didn’t decide after a long time to come clean, and stop all my miserable lying. I had not known that I was lying. I have told this story so many times and in so many forms that it is hard to believe myself right now as I tell you that it is not true. I mean, it isn’t true, obviously, but it has been a part of my historical narrative for so long that it is in some senses more a true part of me than much of the stuff that actually did happen and that made little or no impression on me. (I am reminded of the Woody Allen line in which the comedian recalls a time when he started to drown and somebody else’s whole life flashed before his eyes.)
Why do I have a hard time distinguishing between what actually happened and what never happened? When I was a baby my father died. I have no memory of him, and only one photograph, in which he is holding me. I am dressed in a white gown, and he is wearing a hat that shades his eyes and also hides the one personal detail I have of how he looked: that he was bald. So I have very little of him to remember him by, not even a picture of his bald head or the look in his eye. I own nothing that was his. None of his personal belongings and virtually no anecdotes about him.
When my mother remarried, the man whom she married, though I grew to love him and call him Daddy, did not fulfill my expectations of a father. His grammar, his teeth, his occupation, even his height, seemed insufficient to me. He was distant and alcoholic and slept with my mother and caused her sometimes to cry. It would be comfortable, and neatly Freudian, and even Shakespearian, to blame my stepfather for my belief in the disappointment of romance. He was possessed of sufficient failings to find cause to blame him.
There is another part of this, though.
It was not simply that I didn’t want this particular man to be my father. I wanted another particular man. I had a father picked out for my mother and me. I wanted my mother’s brother, Uncle Bud, to be my father.
Uncle Bud was dashing and handsome, a physician who served in Africa with General Patton. He was outrageous and imaginative and garrulous, and at Christmas one year he wrapped his entire two-story house in tissue paper and tied it with a ribbon four feet wide and a hundred yards long, like a huge Christmas gift. (These true memories will seem more made up than some of my lies.) Another Christmas Uncle Bud climbed into his magnolia tree with a brush and a bucket of red paint and, in a certain pattern, painted all the leaves red so that the magnolia looked like a tree full of elephantine poinsettias. He drove his WWII Jeep with no top at breakneck speeds all over town, he gardened in his front yard in his jockey shorts, he came to track-and-field practices at the local high school and, wearing leather-soled dress shoes and a black suit and tie, outran our best sprinter in the hundred yard dash, and then did the same in the low hurdles. He raised hell, he delivered babies, he baked bread, he told wonderful stories, he built a medical clinic from lumber scraps salvaged from a WWII airbase that he personally tore down, board by board, himself. He even salvaged the old nails and reused them in the walls of the new clinic, and once let me pull a few nails out of the airbase walls with an instrument called a nail puller. Early in the century, when Uncle Bud was a teenager, his own father, my grandfather, also a physician, presented him with four thousand dollars to pay for his four years at Millsaps College in Jackson—it was a liberal sum at the time, and the idea of giving it to him in a lump was to teach him responsibility. My uncle spent every penny of this amount in his first semester at college and had to work at bad jobs for the rest of his college career to support himself. The world was my Uncle Bud’s oyster. I longed for Uncle Bud to be my father.
Even many years later, when I was grown and had children of my own and my stepfather was dead, and Uncle Bud’s wife, my Aunt Frances, died, I could not keep from wishing that somehow, in this liberal modern age of ours—it was the 1970s after all—he and my mother could finally be married, as I continued to believe they should have done all along. Shall I confess, too, that I actually suggested this ridiculous notion to my mother in the car on the day of Aunt Frances’s funeral and that my mother was quite horrified? This was the extent of my great continuing deep need—longing is the only word that seems sufficient—for a proper father to fill some incredible void left in me by my natural father’s death. I am not much embarrassed that now such thoughts appear, even to me, a little pathetic, not to mention bizarre.
So I am saying I think I have run to ground the bad fox of my fictions, the elusive theme of foiled expectations and spoiled romance.
And yet I began by saying that these fictions are so much a part of me that I scarcely know which are true and which are not.
The fact is I have been making up lies—lies that I believed myself—for as long as I can remember. A great central core of these lies involves my stepfather.
Some are simply lies. I told a group of kids in college that my father—stepfather, of course, though I never mentioned this—had his Ph.D. in chemistry from the U. of Michigan. In fact my father—stepfather—was a house painter who was sent by the army to Ann Arbor to a six-week school to study how to paint ammunition. “That’s the closest I ever came to going to college,” he once told me, and so paint and chemicals and college and Dad were from that moment woven into a weird fabric in my mind that emerged as a degree in chemistry. And a Ph.D., no less!
Another time I said—(and remember, I believed this)—that he was an artist, and I strongly implied that he specialized in art restoration in stonework. In fact he once touched up, rather skillfully apparently, some old paint work on a fireplace—and so that’s where I got the art restoration and stonework angle. I said—believed!—that he dated a midget. I said this because he lived for a while in Sarasota, Florida, near winter circus. I said that he died beneath our house and had to be pulled out by a rope tied around his feet. That one is too complicated to explain here.
You could conclude from all this that my inventions are somehow a predictable bit of lying for the usual purposes of lying—to gain something, or to hurt someone else. I could gain status among my friends by being the kind of cool guy who has an artist or teacher for a father, and I could hurt my stepfather’s memory by implying that he was a redneck or a fool. There is no point in denying that these are my probable motives.
But there is another part of this as well. In all my fictions, written and spoken, I have been doing one thing, and it was not to hurt others or to impress my friends, and was only for myself. I have been inventing a father. It was a way of inventing myself—my self.
Without a father I was intolerable to myself. Without a father I was not a person worthy of my own regard. For all my life it has been unacceptable to me that I could not have the father that death took from me, or if not him, then the father of my fantasy, the one I made up from selected detail from the life of my Uncle Bud. (Could Uncle Bud have really owned all that tissue paper?) I have strayed from my original invention, I have added details of intimacy and normalcy and loving support, and even political liberalism. I have attributed pithy sayings to my invented father: “I’m all for the two party system, except for the Republicans,” I have falsely reported him to say. In this incarnation my father sounds like Will Rogers.
I was determined to have a father, and so I have invented one out of the man whom I was given. I have made his imperfect flesh beautiful, his imperfect job exciting. He has become an excellent dancer, he is ironic and accepting of me. And if I am hurt and angry at the world, then I am angry at him and I make him a redneck. What is important, personally and in my life as a fiction writer, is that I have suffered from the belief that since I could not have the father that I first wanted, then I had no father at all, not unless I made him up myself and convinced the world and myself of the fact of him, the truth of him. Only in this way could I then begin to exist.
I have been inventing my father and his love.
Even in my dreams I invented our love affair. I have a recurring dream in which the two of us fish together. The fish he catches are beautiful and cold and silver, the fish I catch are dwarfish, horrible little humanoids. In the end of the dream my father cooks and eats all the fish as if they were all beautiful, mine as well as his, and I feel well loved and fully accepted.
Later, in stories, I invented the same system. Sugar’s father in The All-Girl Football Team accepts his son utterly, even the scary female part of him, and of himself. The same in story after story.
I have been inventing the father I always wanted, imperfect and yet redeemable as well, like the father who makes the joke about going hunting with the governor. And the point is, I have been inventing a Buddy Nordan who had such a father.
This new self, the one with a satisfactory father, or rather with non-events in his life more important than actual historical events, is a person I have grown to like. The more of these inventions that have become a part of me—even now that I am coming clean about them as inventions—the more attractive I believe I am to people who know me, the more confident I am of handling difficult situations (since a cool guy who had this great dad and all these experiences could never be frightened of, say, job interviews or women or surly contractors, whereas a guy who didn’t have a father and was not loved might panic and not know what to say and nobody would like him and he would be a dweeb and get cheated out of money). There are a great many advantages to the invented father, the invented life.
And I suppose there will be advantages to the de-invention as well. Maybe there is a “real” self to be revealed, also acceptable. I don’t know. Maybe the real self is only the invented self fully accepted.
Always my stepfather will have been a housepainter and always, for one frightening moment in the Snack Shop on North State Street in Jackson, Mississippi, he will have held a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan, and always my stepfather will have been a man who had a stepson who became a literary person and tried to give order to chaos, first by stretching history’s boundaries to include what never happened, and then by shrinking them to acknowledge the lie, and then to say, with a conflicted heart, that since the non-historical was for a while historical, then it too, in some way, must be included within history’s elastic frame.
Is there more to say? Nothing, I think, except that when a thief steals, it is not only the hand that is guilty, it is the whole person. The theft invents, shapes, defines. Likewise, a lie. Here is what I wonder: What are the lies yet to be uncovered in me? What dangerous, protective fictions silence the intimate heart so that the inventions may live instead?