The first time she made me do it was the day after Mama died. That shiny black car stirred up a cloud of dust when it skidded across our dirt driveway. Daddy was nowhere to be found and hadn’t been around for weeks. Anyway, even if he had been there he wouldn’t have done much good. He never did.
Before the red dust cloud settled and even before that wheezing woman with the hairy mole got out of the car, my sister, Julie, had me cornered and fully educated on the art of fibbing. She smoothed down my yellow hair and cleaned dirty smudges off my cheeks.
“Now you listen to me and you listen good, Toby. You got the face of an angel blessed by the Lord Almighty hisself. Ain’t nobody nowhere gonna question a single thing that comes outta your mouth.” Julie tucked my shirt in my britches and looked me straight in the eye. “You tell that woman what she wants to hear. You understand me, Boy? Otherwise, she gon’ take you away.” She turned me toward the front door just as the woman rang the bell.
I was only five at the time, and Julie was near about thirteen. Truth is, my sister had always been more like a mother to me on account of Mama was sick before she died.
I couldn’t see no reason why that had to change, but we both had a lot to learn about surviving in a grownup’s world. What we learned right quick was that Julie was a shit liar, but me? Well, I was a natural.
Julie brought the woman a glass of lemonade. Smiling her best, my sister said, “fresh-squeezed lemons from our garden.”
“Oh my dear, don’t be silly. I know the difference between real lemonade and the powdered kind that comes out of a can.” The woman fanned herself with one hand while sucking down every last drop of that “unreal” lemonade. She thrust the glass at my sister and jiggled it around so the ice clinked. Reminded me of that bell you ring to get someone to help you at the library. Julie got the woman a refill even though I know she’d have rather dumped it on her head.
“Now then, look at you. Tobias, isn’t it? Well now aren’t you just a picture. I tell you what, the ladies in my Bridge group were right. You are about the most darling little boy I’ve ever seen.” I watched a lone hair wiggling and dancing up out of the mole on her cheek. My sister knew me well enough to know I was staring at it cause what I really wanted to do was touch it, so she cleared her throat and shoved me onto the sofa.
“Is there something we can do for you, Ms. Stapleton?” Julie handed the woman a third glass of lemonade. I’d never seen someone drink so much in my life.
“I’m here to see about your well-being, is all. Things can’t be easy for you here since your mama died. Do you have enough to eat and drink?” Course, here about now I was thinking, well we had plenty of lemonade before you got here, but I kept quiet.
“We’re fine, thank you.”
“I really need to hear that your father is around. Where is he, anyway?” She looked around as if we might’ve hidden him under a chair or something. That’s when Julie nudged me with her elbow to give me a signal.
“Daddy works nights, you see, ma’am. He’s upstairs sleeping is all. See, that’s why he can’t visit with you just now. On account of he’s got to get his forty winks.” I batted my eyelashes and smiled real genuine, like, just the way Julie showed me. Now, mind you, my old man hadn’t graced our doorstep let alone been upstairs in well over a month, but at that moment, I could almost hear him snoring, I told it so good.
And lo and behold if it didn’t work!
“Don’t you just have the cutest little dimples when you smile. Tobias, you are truly a doll.” She pinched my cheek with her pudgy mitt, and I will say I could’ve done without that, but I didn’t kick her like I really wanted to. Besides, she and her shiny car and hairy mole skedaddled right shortly after. She said she’d be back to check on us later, but she must’ve been lying, too, cause not a single soul ever stopped by to check on us again. That was okay, anyway, because even though I was nothin but five years old, I’d mastered my very first lie. And you know what they say…they get a whole lot easier to tell after you get the first one over with.
Turned out, Julie was pretty good at growing things and that’s how we survived most of the time. Also, I found Daddy’s old fishing pole and spent so much time at the pond I turned darker than an old crow. Mama taught Julie how to can and lucky for us she’d stocked the cellar before she died, God bless her soul. After a while, we started to run low and Julie thought it was high time we thought about how we were going to feed ourselves through the next year.
Now, one thing’s for sure about lying and that is, you can’t be doing it all the time or people get suspicious. Needless to say, I worked it out where I was strategic about it and my sharp planning paid off. Normally, they say you gotta spend money to make money, but I managed to pull it off with just a few sprigs of grass.
“What cha doin with all that Y-grass, Toby?” Jameson Peters, the tallest boy in second grade, was blessed with too much pocket change and not enough sense. He stopped short as soon as he spotted me crouched down by the path we walked home on everyday from school. I didn’t look up at him, but I could feel him watching me create neat stacks of highwaygrass I’d pulled up from along the path.
“Shhh shhh! Now, Jameson, back up and hush! You’re gone mess with the juju and then it ain’t gone work right.” I wiped nonexistent sweat off my brow as if I’d been fussin’ over those weeds for hours. He squatted down next to me to get a closer look.
“That’s just some dumb ole weeds, Toby.” He whispered, presumably as to not upset the alleged juju.
“It’s ok, Jameson. I don’t spect you to understand or nuthin. It’s just something I read in a book is all.”
“I do see you reading an awful lot.”
“Yeah and this was one of those books from the restricted section.” Out the corner of my eye, I saw Jameson’s eyes widen.
“Well, what did it say?”
“Awe, c’mon now, Jameson. You’re just gonna make fun of me for reading and being smart.”
“No, I ain’t! I just wanna know, that’s all.”
“You gotta promise not to tell anyone, cause this is not something we want getting out.” I said this knowing full well that Jameson couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.
“Promise. Cross my heart.” He leaned in closer.
“Well, now, see these sprigs of Y-grass with the black specks on the end? They’s got special bits in ‘em that makes wishes come true.” Now, understand I was makin this up as I went along. I knew full well that anyone could walk two steps in any direction and get their own bahaigrass by the armloads, so I had to come up with a plan to make my piles of it seem special—special enough for someone to part ways with their money in exchange for it, that is.
“Okay…” Jamison screwed up his face in the way he always did when he was thinking real hard about something, so I knew I was getting somewhere.
“But, see, according to this expert in that book I read, there’s a certain way you gotta do it and I just don’t think I can hand that kind of information over for free, is all. I’m an honorable man, you see and I don’t think that’d be right. I mean, you can always go read it for yourself…” I didn’t even finish what I was saying before that big lug was handing me all the money he had in his pocket. Now, mind you, it was more than enough to put food in me and Julie’s bellies, but I still had to act right or I’d blow it.
I twisted my lips up and squinted at him real hard like I was summing him up. Then, I nodded and put the money in my pocket. I leaned over all secretive like and whispered the fabricated legend of the Y-grass.
“What cha gotta do is, hold the stem in your teeth, close your eyes, and make a wish.” I handed him a carefully selected sprig as if it was a sacred jewel. He nodded and commenced to following my instructions. As soon as he had the stem in his mouth and his eyes closed, I yanked the grass through his teeth, depositing a wad of gritty, black seeds in his mouth. He bolted upright, eyes ablaze with surprise and disgust.
“NO! No! Don’t spit it out! You’ll spit out the juju! Awe, man I told you you weren’t ready for this.” I reached in my pocket to refund his money as I shook my head back and forth, looking real disappointed. He jutted a palm toward me to stop me then forced himself to swallow the seeds. His face turned a shade of green and I thought for a second he was gonna upchuck all over me. Then he grinned, displaying hordes of black seeds stuck all in his teeth.
“Now see there. I did it. And I already feel luckier.” Jameson ran the whole way home after that. He must not have brushed his teeth that night or the next morning, because he spent the next day at school showing off his seedy teeth which he called his, lucky charms. For the next two weeks, I had a fruitful after school business selling lucky Y-grass to my classmates. Everybody, it seemed, wanted those black seeds in their teeth. And see, maybe I wasn’t lying so much after all because it turned out to be for real lucky, wish-fulfilling grass for me and Julie. That particular lie bought us enough groceries to keep us fed for months.
Now, I know a person with my skills could get himself into a lot of trouble gambling, but my sister made sure I didn’t go that route, or else this’d be a much different tale. She did, however, encourage me to use my gifts in other ways.
“You can sell ice to a polar bear in winter, Toby. Go get you a part time job selling something. But don’t you dare quit school. I will ring your neck if you even think about it, you hear me?” By this time, Julie had long since dropped outta school so I could keep going. She worked like a mule, let me tell you, washing clothes and cleaning houses for rich folks. It was a time when women weren’t seen as useful anywhere except at home, but she did what she could to pay the bills. There were plenty of gentlemen who wanted to sweep her off her feet, but my sister had no interest in all that. I guess she’d had enough of depending on men after our father skipped out on us.
Now I know a lot of folks wouldn’t have listened to their sisters, but I knew Julie was smart, so I almost always followed her advice. She was right, too, and I easily landed my first job selling newspapers. Pretty soon, I had the biggest paper route in the town. On weekends, after I delivered to all my regular customers, I stood on the corner of the town’s business center and sold another hundred or so papers.
“What’s your secret, Boy? I ain’t never seen anything like it. You sell more papers on the weekend than all my other paperboys combined.” Mr. Wyatt, the owner of The Daily Sun, called me into his office one morning. Now, see, I knew this was my opportunity to get what I really wanted out that job.
I felt it twist in the pit of my stomach and tingle all the way up to my ears, like the voice of Fate herself was whispering to me, “now’s your chance.” So of course, I put my skills to good use.
“Well, Sir, I’d love to tell you my secret, but I’m gonna need something from you first. See, once I tell you this secret, well, you won’t need me to sell papers anymore, now will you?” I grinned and waited for his response.
“What did you have in mind, Son?”
“It just so happens that you have an opening in your writing department. Hire me as a writer and I’ll pass on my secret.” Again, I smiled and waited for his response. The key to good negotiations is knowing when to tell more lies and when to shut up. At this point, it was time for me to shut up, so I did. Granted, it wasn’t easy. He didn’t start chattering away like some people do. Instead, Mr. Wyatt folded his hands in front of him and stared at me for what seemed like hours, but I didn’t budge. I stared right back at him till he finally spoke.
“You’re hired. But, you ain’t done selling for me just yet, either. I want you to train folks. Teach the paperboys how to sell like you do.” He jutted out a manicured hand for me to shake and that was that.
I met the first crew of trainees that next weekend and immediately knew I had my work cut out for me. Weren’t none of em as purdy as me, I tell you what, but I worked with what I had. I got those boys souped up and looking spiffy in no time with clean faces and shiny shoes.
Then, I got down to the business of teaching them how to sell. See, the trick is, you gotta make people feel good cause ain’t nobody that wants to part with their hard earned cash when they’s in a foul mood. And the quickest way to boost someone’s mood is to give them a genuine, heartfelt, honest to goodness compliment.
“What a nice smile you have, Sir.”
“That’s a swell lookin hat you got there.”
“You walk like a man who knows how to get things done.”
Once they got to giving compliments and sellin papers, I taught em how to remember folks so as to gain repeat business. Before long, those boys had sold three times as many papers as I ever had and I was bustin out with pride for em.
Now, right about that time, as I told you before, I started writing for the paper. I tell you what, that right there is the best darn job a liar can have. As it turned out, writing is one of the highest forms of lying there is. I mean, isn’t that the very definition of “fiction”…fabricated stories?
So now, to prove my point, I’m gonna remind you that I am, in fact, a fantastic liar. Some might even go so far as to say that I’m a pathological liar. After all, I have lied my way through this entire story. Ain’t a single word of this tale even got a hint of the truth to it.