Room 471, the Federal Building, Eighth Street, Philadelphia: a perfectly square room which for no obvious reason had an eye chart on the southern wall. A leak in the roof two floors up had spread damage across the ceiling and down two other walls—ricotta-like eruptions of plaster, arrested avalanches of softened latex paint. In one corner where the cracks were especially complex, the ceiling was actually sagging. The room gave the impression of a desperate beleaguerment, as if an immense weight of water, that enemy of paper documents and even more so of anything electrical, were bearing down from above. There was a yeasty, incontinent smell of damp plaster, and rustles of official business outside the door.
In the room: two white men. From the fingers and arm and thorax of one of them, Andy Aberant, half a dozen wires in elementary colors stretched down a cheap particle-board table to a partition behind which the other, Special Agent Barry Thewless, was adjusting levels. Aberant looked wired for a virtual-reality experience, but the signals were all outgoing—respiration rate, skin moisture and so forth. Thewless’s pants pockets were tumescent with Kleenex, his knobby face a bright pink from his morning shave. Watching over the table was a video camera with the sleek body and long legs of a shore bird.
‘You’re smiling why,’ Thewless said to Aberant.
Aberant, who had indeed begun to smile, said, ‘I was remembering the one time I ever had the courage to ask my father why he didn’t fight in the Second World War. He was the right age for it, and I always had the feeling he felt like less of a man for not having fought with everybody else. That all his life he didn’t feel like he really fit in. So I asked him once, and he said high blood pressure. He said he was late for his physical and he ran up six flights of stairs to the doctor’s office. They took his blood pressure and they said he was unfit.’
‘This is amusing why,’ Thewless said.
‘Because it just occurred to me that maybe he was lying. He was a bulldog, healthwise. He took like three sick days in his entire career. He was also uncontrollably honest. When he was dating my mother he told her she wasn’t half as pretty as her sister, stuff like that. He couldn’t control it.’
Thewless inclined his head to read his watch. ‘The point being what.’
‘The point being that he didn’t tell the doctor that he’d run up those stairs. He didn’t ask to be re-tested. So either what he told me wasn’t true, or he wasn’t completely honest with the doctor. You have to understand, this was a man who never lied. I didn’t put it together until this minute.’
Outside the only window, which was closed, the Philadelphia sky hovered proximately. The Ben Franklin Bridge, looking too big for its setting, came to an awkward end among warehouse roofs. On the broad sidewalk below the window, a handful of Catholic pacifists held aloft placards urging an end to the death penalty. There was light residual morning traffic on Eighth Street, the less serious commuters.
‘I thought of it because of the blood-pressure thingy here and of course the whole topic of lies,’ Aberant said.
‘The Plethysmograph,’ Thewless said affectionately. ‘I’m going to pump that up again, if you don’t mind, and then we’ll do the questions a little differently.’ He reached over the partition, gave the rubber bulb a few amorous squeezes and returned to his instruments. ‘Your full name as it appears on your passport is what.’
‘Andrew Kearns Aberant. Stress on the first syllable of the last name.’
‘Your father and mother are alive, yes or no.’
‘You have three older sisters, excellent though substantially overweight Christian women with many children, all of whom reside in Texas, yes or no.’
Thewless belonged to the Neutral Phrasing school of polygraph operators, and he read the questions on his clipboard in an unstressed monotone, as though dictating to voice-recognition software. To speak to a machine, one made oneself machine-like. And this, of course, was the point of the poly: that Aberant was a machine, that the organic wiring that instructed his arteries to constrict and his sweat glands to open partook of the same materia prima in which his ‘higher’-order thoughts held court. There were rumors even now, gnomic whisperings on Wall Street, of new technologies that could patch into this wiring directly and decode, if not thoughts and images, certainly intentions and emotions. The old government-issue poly in Room 471 was Eisenhowerishly sincere and primitive, however, and quite out of its league when it came to reporting on the inside of Aberant.
‘You are or have in the past been an anarchist or a member of or affiliated with any Communist or other totalitarian party including any subdivision or affiliate, yes or no,’ Thewless said.
‘You’re mentally ill or homosexual, yes or no.’
‘You’re currently sleeping with who.’
‘I think you mean whom. Julia Fuller, in Manhattan. I see her on weekends.’
‘Who else?’ Thewless said, somewhat less robotically.
‘The whom here again would be nobody.’
‘Prior to your hiring by the Securities & Exchange Commission your position was what.’
‘I was a full-time law student at Columbia University.’
‘Prior to that you resided where.’
‘Your means of support was what.’
‘I had a small inheritance from my parents’ death.’
‘The cause of their death was what.’
‘There was a freak windstorm in Lawrence, Kansas. They were blown off an overpass.’
‘At the time of their death you were employed as what.’
‘I was a staffer with the Environmental Defense League.’
‘At that time you engaged in activities that were in opposition to the United States government or you knowingly associated with individuals engaged in subversive activities, yes or no.’
‘You’re aware that Environmental Defense League literature calls for the establishment of a New Holistic World Order, yes or no.’
‘To the best of my knowledge the EDL is a law-abiding group and always has been.’
‘Yes or no.’
Thewless had no more questions. He released the pressure in the cuff on Aberant’s arm and gingerly untaped the other sensors.
Aberant put on his shirt and jacket with the compact, dignified movements of a man whose honesty had been vigorously impugned.
In front of the Federal Building, under the Eakins-like vacancy of the sky, a broad-shouldered, big-chested woman in a thigh-length red T-shirt detached herself from the other Catholic protesters and intercepted Aberant in the no-parking zone where he’d left his car. ‘Hey you,’ she said. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Taking a lie-detector test.’
‘No shit. How many times did you lie?’
‘So kiss me six times,’ she said.
With a laugh he removed the parking ticket that was lodged beneath his wiper blade, tore it in two and dropped it in the gutter.
Although he’d been lying for as long as he could remember, had incorporated deception so thoroughly into his being that it almost seemed as if his entire life had been a preparation for passing with flying colors the final random polygraph test that stood between him and full federal security clearance, Andy Aberant had seldom been pathological about it. He was simply a skilled withholder of pertinent information, a sower of red herrings; an extrapolator, an interpolator. Having visited North Carolina as a child, he saw no harm in claiming, as an adult, that he’d also been to South Carolina. After all, he had no memory of either state.
When he was young there was a mania for science fairs, and for various disreputable reasons he keenly wished to win a regional science fair trophy; the main reason, perhaps, was that his aptitude for science was substantially nil. He went to the university library and combed its holdings in plant physiology, which his class at school was studying, and he found a technical paper on plant growth substances that was both obscure enough and simple enough to be mistaken for the work of a brilliant eighth-grader. It concerned gibberellic acid and some mysterious elusive chemical factor named K2, also the name of a mountain. The junior-high biology lab happened to own several grams of gibberellic acid, and using some plywood and white paint Andy built a controlled environment in which to grow oat seedlings in test tubes. Once it was all painted and electrified and turning green with young oats, he photographed it with an Instamatic from many angles. Then he ignored it for so long that his mother began to complain about the smell. (At the Aberants’ church great stress was placed on Christ’s painful crucifixion, but in Andy’s own private version of His passion, Christ had been allowed to die of neglect in a terrarium, flowerpot or fishbowl.) To determine the effects of gibberellic acid in concert with mysterious, elusive, chemical factor K2, he was now supposed to weigh the oat seedlings, but at this late date they were little more than crusts of dried-out blackish slime. It took him several long afternoons to draw the graph showing the experiment’s ‘correct’ results and then work backwards, fabricating a long list of seedling weights with some artful random variation, and then work forward again to make sure the fictional data produced the correct results, which they did, and he won the three-foot-tall first-place trophy and special commendation from the judges for his photographs.
Afterwards his father took him aside and told him he should smile and thank people who had praised his work; that his self-deprecation looked to them like arrogance, and he hoped that Andy wasn’t arrogant about his victory?
Andy said no, he wasn’t arrogant about his victory.
So to a house with a fish symbol or a Galilean crowd scene in every room there came a hollow pagan icon—a silver-plated Winged Victory on a faux-walnut base with Andy’s name engraved on it incorrectly (‘aberrant‘): science victorious, presumably, over the forces of darkness and superstition. Whenever he noticed the trophy gathering dust in the family room, what he experienced was not so much guilt (though there was some of that too) as a curious sensation of seeing an artifact from the life of the boy he was supposed to be, the authentic Andrew that he emphatically was not. From here it was a short step to oiling the hinges of the front door and nailing down the loose floorboards of the hallway so that he could silently slip from the house after everyone (including him, with much yawning and stretching of arms) had gone to bed. While the putative Andrew slept, the inconveniently actual Andy drank apple wine with other junior-varsity golfers at the bottom of a gravel pit. And the next morning, so badly hungover that after chewing a bite of toast for a minute or two he determined that swallowing it was not remotely an option, his transgressions were rewarded with special concern from his mother. She put him to bed and brought him liquids and then hurried off to church, because the funny thing about Andy’s bouts with stomach flu was that they always seemed to come on Sunday mornings.
The problem was not that he was spoiled, or even, in a household as evangelically correct as the Aberants’, particularly over-indulged. The problem was love. The last foamy wave of it, sweet and red as Strawberry Crush, would still be clearing through his gunwales when a fresh wave hit. As the youngest child, the long-wished-for son and little brother, he was inundated, capsized, sunk. There were possibly as few as eight candles on the birthday cake in front of him the first time he found himself, in the glow of their flames and of the expectant smiles that ringed him, feigning pleasure. To the aunts and grandmothers who had remembered his special day he wrote I love the present and will think of you whenever I use it, but the truth was that he thought about himself a great deal and about his aunts and grandmothers (who loved him) almost never. He was the best student in his family but he felt stupider than his sisters and parents, who at any given moment had room in their heads for the contemplation of people less fortunate than themselves and for thanking the Lord and for excitement about proms and new curtains for the living room; they were capable of astounding feats of parallel processing, and the only way he could keep up with them, the only way to avoid betraying his unworthiness of their love, was to perfect the art of seeming. He felt like the lone oxygen-breather in a house whose atmosphere of helium made everyone else’s voices high-pitched with festivity and optimism. The only place where he could breathe was a private place inside himself, and fortunately his family loved him so much that they didn’t notice he was missing.
His father, Gene Aberant, was a home-improvement maven, a traveling agronomist for the state of Kansas and perhaps the most tender-hearted man in the Sunflower State. Wiry and balding, with thick-lensed glasses and big teeth that were forever exposed in his happiness to be alive, he weighed not a whole lot more than half of what his wife did. He loved and was loved by every small child he ever met, which would have included Andy had Andy not been a sour middle-aged French philosopher (this was approximately how alien he looked to himself in hindsight) trapped in the body of a child. For Andy’s thirteenth birthday, after his victory at the science fair, Gene unilaterally built him a full-service laboratory bench in the basement, and for many months afterward Andy was so stricken with guilt over the misunderstanding that he spent all the money he earned as a caddie to amass supplies for the lab. He was devoid of scientific curiosity but he genuinely liked the supplies as sensual objects: fresh packages of microscope slides, slabs of paraffin for the microtome that he never figured out how to use, retorts and ring stands and Erlenmeyer flasks, rubber tubes and rubber stoppers, anything related to the deliciously austere word ‘reagent’, a second-hand microscope with a rack-and-pinion focusing mechanism and knurled brass knobs; killing jars, agar-agar, vermiculite. He bought a hardbound ledger in which to record his observations, but it remained empty. His concern was simply to appear scientific, and his lab activities were strictly demonstrations—’experiments’ that produced smoke or flame or attractive arrangements of glassware or colorful liquids or death to insects.
‘We’ve got a budding young scientist,’ Gene announced from time to time.
Only after Gene was dead did Andy become cynical enough himself to suspect the utter absence of cynicism in that household, and to see how he in his young cynicism might have been the most innocent of all of them, because he’d bothered to be a liar, had bothered to try to preserve his family’s innocence, had actually wanted that stupid trophy and, worst of all, had believed himself to be uniquely deceitful—as if, when the rest of humanity said I love the present and will think of you whenever I use it, they actually meant it. He recognized, too late, that innocence is always willful. After all he must have reeked of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine when he was put back to bed on Sunday mornings, and he was often caught in his lies, and his ever-more outrageous second-order lies were swallowed with peculiar readiness. Why had his mother heard him opening the front door at five in the morning? He said he’d been stargazing. How had he used half a tank of gas driving twelve blocks to the university library? He said he’d heard on the car radio about an interesting partial solar eclipse south of Wichita. Could that possibly have been Andy whom Mrs Sternhagen had spotted with Alicia Rutting on the eleventh green of the Lakeview Country Club three hours after he’d gone to his bedroom with much yawning and stretching of arms? He took the opportunity to ask his parents for a birthday gift subscription to Sky & Telescope.
If his parents had survived to old age, had lived even just a year or two longer, there would surely have been a correction. Andy would have gotten around to admitting that his postgraduate apartment on West 122nd Street was not ‘a few blocks’ from Wall Street, that the Environmental Defense League had not been founded by Marlin Perkins, that the woman who sometimes answered his telephone was not his roommate’s sister but the girlfriend with whom he was ‘cohabiting’ (a word which to evangelical Kansans connoted lewdly fucking), and that he had majored in astronomy at college because the old gin-smelling chairman of the department would not fail any student who came to his weekly rooftop star parties. Or maybe the correction would have run the other way. Maybe one of Andy’s sisters would have found a new God and blown the roof off the house of Aberant, announced to the world that shy, ‘honest’ Gene had sexually abused each of his three daughters in turn, and that their mother had worn those hideous floral pants suits not because she had bad taste, but because her legs were covered with bruises and burn marks, and that all the piety and cheer, the baking for bake sales and the cherishing of Andy and his pleasures, had in fact been an elaborate quintipartite conspiracy whose aim was the achievement of innocence on Andy’s part, because they needed one innocent in their family or they all would have gone crazy. They needed him to believe that he was deceiving them lest he suspect the enormity of their deception of him, because the ravages of Boone’s Farm, the moist comforts of Alicia Rutting, the Saturday-afternoon pilgrimage to the Foxxxy Club Cinema in Kansas City, the exhalation of cannabis smoke into the fiberglass insulation between attic rafters in the heart-rendingly naïve belief that no one downstairs could smell it (for Andy had done this too), were all just lilacs and bunny rabbits compared to the sick truths that they were conspiring to keep from him . . .
But there was no correction of any kind. In the year of Big Brother, which was also the year when high-speed monorails rendered the automobile obsolete, which was also the year when Malthusian famines swept the overpopulated planet, his parents took a walk together on a Sunday afternoon, and a wind out of nowhere lifted them off the Harrison Avenue overpass and dropped them on the pavement forty feet below. When Andy flew into Kansas City the next morning, freak wind and killer gust were the lead stories in the two local papers. Apparently the gust, some weird sort of back-door frontal disturbance, had descended full force into a day of perfect calm, like an invisible twister that was everywhere at once, shearing off awnings, denuding billboards and upending mobile homes. According to news reports, a lot of people had believed the wind was the end of the world; it had hit with the uncanny suddenness of a shock wave from a pre-emptive strike on the silos twenty miles west.
During the week he spent at home, it seemed as if everywhere he turned he saw an exact replica of his old science-fair trophy—the identical Winged Victory and fake walnut pedestal. Behind the cash register of the gas station where he filled the tank of the parental Olds: ‘Manhattan Kansas Stalk Car Derby, Second Runner Up.’ In the richly panelled employee lounge-cum-casket showroom where he shook the soft, pickled-seeming hand of funeral director Ollie Engdahl: ‘First Prize, Kiwanis Bwol-AThon, Engdahl Funereal Home Employees.’ And in the den of the pastor who led him and his sisters and brothers-in-law in a lengthy private prayer: ‘Pilsbury Regional Bake-Off, Daisy Fawcett, Lemin Bars.’ The big windows of the Fawcetts’ modern split-level were so clean that they lent a painful definition to the late-winter wheatfields and woodlots outside them, the stubble and oak branches blown clean by a sky so starkly blue that there seemed not to be a sun in it anywhere, nor any birds or other life. While the rest of his surviving family went to the Fawcett kitchen and loaded plates with Mrs Fawcett’s famous lemon bars, Andy did a thing he later lost sleep regretting. He stole a black Sharpi® from the pastor’s desk and defaced the trophy’s inscription, changing the ‘i’ in ‘Lemin’ to an ‘o’. He knew this was a cruel thing to do because he knew that Mrs Fawcett was in midwestern awe of authority and so almost certainly preferred a professional error to an amateur truth.
In later years when people asked him how his parents had died, he generally said ‘a highway accident’—which was hardly even a lie—because the true cause of their death seemed ridiculous to anyone who didn’t come from Kansas. In Kansas people took the weather seriously; almost everyone had seen a funnel cloud or had slid off a road in a blizzard or knew somebody who’d known somebody incinerated by lightning, usually a golfer. But the sad truth was that even Andy found his parents’ deaths ridiculous, and he hoped that they too had been so shocked and amused to find themselves tumbling off that overpass that they hadn’t had time for terror before the impact shattered their skulls and a lot of their bones. When he viewed them in their caskets he saw that Ollie Engdahl had been unequal to the task of adjusting their skeletons into restful poses. The bodies lay lumpily in the white satin cushions like battered dolls—crude replicas of two late-middle-aged Kansans who, as far as Andy knew, had done nothing worse in their lives than maybe love him a little too much. He was particularly unimpressed by the smaller doll’s pretense of being his father, whom he could not imagine otherwise than as a tiger of lean power. As, for example, when Gene had rushed to get the family’s new sprinkler system installed while a summer sky hatched thunderstorms, had sprinted back and forth across the front lawn with undulating lengths of plastic pipe while the sky turned the green and black of spoiled beef and the thunder came from every direction, the muscles in the globes of his shoulders braiding and unbraiding as he tried to shovel all the Kansas clay back in the trenches before the deluge struck, an actual freshet of sweat, not just isolated droplets, coursing from his face. The sky opened before he’d refilled his orderly trenches, and where a different man, a man who had fought in the war, might have shouted curses at the weather, Gene simply grinned and shook his head as a bolt of lightning blew out a nearby utility-pole transformer in a malign experiment of ozone and evil-smelling PCBs, and what basically qualified as a flash flood ripped through the trenches and carried a good part of the Aberant family’s topsoil, along with various not-inexpensive pipes and sprinkler-system fittings, down the hill and into the culvert where Andy, then about eight years old, had recently impressed two neighbor girls by cavorting naked. Standing by the caskets sixteen years later, he wept but unfortunately also watched himself weep.
In later years he said ‘a highway accident’ because he had learned that it was just too wearisome to persuade people of the truth when an easily swallowable half-truth was available. And the weariness became a way of life. He drifted for a decade in a slow curve that eventually landed him in law school, that modern refuge of the aimlessly clever, and from law school he edged by default into public service. The feeling of stupidity from his childhood stayed with him always. He considered himself a person to whom nothing interesting had ever happened. If someone had asked his father if he’d ever been to South Carolina, his father would have said, ‘No, but I hear it’s a beautiful state,’ and then would have listened, beaming and nodding, while the person told him interesting facts and legends of South Carolina, and after ten minutes Gene would have learned a great deal about the state, and the person would have enjoyed talking to him.
Andy, his only son, somehow came into the world needing people to believe that he knew everything, which was another way of saying that he believed he knew nothing about anything but himself; and what he knew about himself, which was that he was very afraid, he dedicated all his energies to concealing. When he told stories, they were usually stories about someone else. In these stories he felt more truly alive than he did in the few he ever told about himself. He had the nagging suspicion that if it had been someone other than himself in the vicinity of whose shattered ulna an orthopedic surgeon had left the cap of a twenty-five-cent Bic pen, someone other than himself who had unwittingly locked himself in an aft lavatory of an L-1011 and spent six hours in a USAir hangar before being rescued by a cleaning-crew member (these were the two most colorful things that had ever happened to him), he might have told the stories with relish. But since it was he to whom these things had happened, he quickly lost interest in them, because they were simply colorful and there were only two of them, and two seemed approximately his allotment as a citizen of a well-ordered republic in which mildly zany or tragic things once in a while befell almost everyone—the freak gust of wind, the massacre at a Wendy’s, the six-legged calf, the red bell pepper which when photographed from the proper angle uncannily resembled the head of Richard Nixon. Why bother mentioning one’s own few contributions to the general static? There was no truth whatsoever to his stories. They did not begin, ‘I met the woman of my life at’ or ‘I found God when’ or ‘I decided to join the Revolution because’. He seemed to himself an anti-raconteur. The only thing about himself that felt singular was the degree to which he experienced the shallowness of his personality and the emptiness of words. He had the breadth and depth of knowledge of a card catalog. He was full of data which often proved not very reliable. He was good at taking tests, at causing women to fall in love with him and at escaping from these women with his reputation for kindness intact. Only once had he failed to escape in time; he was living in Bozeman with a girl who was seriously Catholic, and her last words to him were: ‘Your soul is dead.’
Had his father deceived the army doctor? He would never know. Had his father deceived him? He would never know. By missing the war and then living in a house of women, Gene Aberant had become estranged from the world of men. Andy had simply completed the development and become estranged from the world of everyone. The only rules he believed in were rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. And now he really did love the present. It was the only place he could bear to live.
Photograph © Quinn deEskimo