FICTION

A Man's Got to Lie Once in a While

THIRD PRIZE, MACLEAN'S FICTION CONTEST

VERA JOHNSON February 1 1953
FICTION

A Man's Got to Lie Once in a While

THIRD PRIZE, MACLEAN'S FICTION CONTEST

VERA JOHNSON February 1 1953

A Man's Got to Lie Once in a While

FICTION

THIRD PRIZE, MACLEAN'S FICTION CONTEST

VERA JOHNSON

WELL, NOW, the truth is a tine thing if you use it wisely and in moderation but did you ever stop to consider that too much truth can he just as dangerous as too many lies? Anyways, that’s what Willie Huckelmeyer claimed.

(Thanks, I don’t mind if I do. It’s a long story and a dry one.)

To begin at the beginning which is always a very good place to start a story - you must understand that Willie’s mother was the boss in that family. A fine God-fearing woman she was too, built like a brick hen-house and with muscles to match. She had a voice on her like a bull moose -raw and hard and strong and when she started in to talk the rest of the family sat back and listened.

There were seven boys, all born criminals like boys everywhere, and it was no easy thing to turn them into respectable citizens. But if the job could be done, she was the woman to do it. She knew the Bible like the back of her hand that is to say, she’d recognize the cover anywhere; but as to what was inside, well, she had her own ideas about that.

As soon as the boys were old enough to bite their gums on knucklebones left over from the soup she began drilling them in the three commandments. “Work hard” that was number one. “Keep clean”that was number two. “Don’t tell lies”— that was the last of them, and the one she laid the most stress on.

Now mind you, she wasn’t like one of these preachers who blast the congregation from the pulpit. She believed that the way to get an idea across is to beat people over the head with it, and that’s how she went about it. She took a rough cloth and laundry soap to their faces and scrubbed down to the second layer of skin. She yanked a comb through the tangles in their hair and if they squealed she gave them a healthy rap on the skull. She shoveled holopchis into them, and other queer Polish dishes, until their bellies stuck out like little drums and if they didn’t swallow fast enough she hit them on the head with a spoon. When it was time for bed she grabbed them by an ear or a hank of hair whichever was handiest—and lugged them into the house. And all the time she was hollering at them—“Keep clean ! Work hard! Don’t tell lies!”

Now the words by themselves might not have made much of an impression, but the boys always had a bruise or a bump or a sore spot that fixed them in their minds. It was the Huckelmeyer system of memory aid and believe me it had it all over Pelmanism and the rest of them.

The result of this hardy training was that Willie never in his life told even a small fib just by way of courtesy—and that’s the way it was, right

With his cunning tongue Willie wriggled his way from barefoot hoy to senator. But what could he do with Sarah, who wanted the truth — hut not the whole truth?

up until his sixth birthday. After that the only man you could have compared him with was that fellow from the Bible—Ananias, that’s his name.

It was curious, too, the way it all came about. It seems the mother was a warm-hearted creature, as fierce and vigorous in her loving as she was in her preaching. In fact, she once broke two of her husband’s ribs through hugging him with too much exuberance—but that’s by the way. The thing is, she was stubborn about birthdays. Never a one would she allow to pass without a gift and a cake with candles, even when they were scraping the bottom of the barrel. So when Willie’s sixth birthday came along he got his present as usual. The funds must have been low about that time because Willie’s father a clever man with his hands, though slow-thinking and not much of a one for conversation—made it himself with a piece of brass tubing and a length of chain.

It was a trapeze that hung from the big beam in the basement. And Willie knew, as soon as he laid eyes on it, that it was the very thing he’d wanted all his life though he’d never thought of it before, mind you.

He was down the basement the whole day, hanging upside down by the backs of his knees until his face turned red as a scrubwoman’s elbow, tying himself in reef knots, skinning the cat, twisting himself into all the strange positions he could think of; and at the end of the afternoon he called in the boy next door to watch him go through his whole bag of tricks.

It was a grave mistake, that. You see, the boy next door was seven. If he’d been five, or five and a half, he would just have sat there with his eyes wide and said nothing. But being seven, he naturally had to put Willie in his place. So he waited until Willie was finished and then he said, “I’ve got a cousin five years old. He can hang by his toes.”

Well now, you can see what a terrible blow that would be. There was Willie, with his hair sticking out every which way and the sweat standing out on him like dew, smiling and bowing and waiting for the applause — and then suddenly struck by a thunderbolt, in a manner of speaking.

Sure, it was enough to befuddle a grown man, let alone a boy of six. Before you could say “cushla mochree” he comes out with the first lie of his life.

“So can I,” he says, and it was out so quick he could hardly believe it was himself that said it.

The other boy looks at him with a dirty smile on his face and says, “Let’s see you.”

So Willie turned around, sick at heart, and walked to the trapeze. He made a great thing of dusting off the bar and spitting on his hands and wiping them off on his pants, hoping his mother would call him for supper but she didn’t. It was a most astonishing thing, after all his worry, but there he was finally, hanging upside down like one of these three-toed sloths you see in the crossword puzzles. After he got over the surprise» of it, he began to feel quite easy. He even waved his arms a bit to set the trapeze swinging.

Well, after the family had stuffed ihemselves at the birthday supper Willie invited them down to the basement to watch him hang by his toes. They made a fine audience and he put on a real show for them. But when it came to the grand climax, something went wrong. He did everything the way he’d done it before, but this time, when he took his hands away from the t ubing, the floor came up and hit him a dreadful wallop and the next thing lie knew he was lying flat on his back and screeching like the unhappy ghost of O’Brien’s mother-in-law.

There was a fine to-do then, with his father carrying him up to bed and his mother rushing off for iodine and sticking-plaster — though she didn’t have to use it because it was only a big lump, as it turned out.

The mother was sorry for him, right enough, but more angry than sorry. She was sure he was lying about being able to hang by his toes, so she gave him a terrible talking-to; and when he tried to argue she turned him over on his face and gave him a wallop across the backside for being stubborn as w'ell as a liar.

Well now, it’s a terrible thing what impressionable creatures children are. Would you believe it, after that day Willie never told the truth from one year to the next, right up until the time he run up against Sarah McLeod but I’m getting ahead of my story.

IT’S not such an easy thing as you might think now, this business of telling lies and not getting caught. When you come right down to it, it’s an art, just like writing books or playing the flute, and if you haven’t got. the natural gifts in the first place, you might as well give up and go home. I’ve heard children saw in g on the violin in a way that would fair bring the tears to your eyes, all because their parents hadn’t the sense to know this. Well, Willie had the gifts and no mistake. He was a born liar and, by practicing and studying, he reached such heights of perfection that 1 doubt, if there was a man alive to compare with him, in his prime.

He wasn’t handsome enough to make

people suspicious*—you know' how* they mistrust a handsome man. On the other hand he wasn’t too ugly. He had a broad face, rough in a way, but open-an honest face. The finest thing about it was the eyes. Big and blue they were, and when you looked into them you could see clean through to the back of the brain.

His own mother, her that lived with him in the same house and watched him fiercely in case he should ever start telling stories, his own mother was taken in by those eyes twenty times a week. When she shook out her purse and found that a quarter had turned up missing Willie convinced her she must have dropped it at the store. When somebody threw a rock through the garage window Willie remembered he had seen a strange boy running down the lane. When a big slab of chocolate cake disappeared Willie said he had given it to a poor old tramp who came to t he back door.

He was never a one to do things by halves and when he turned against one of his mother’s commandments he tossed out the whole caboodle at least, he tried to. The one about keeping clean had become a habit , as it does with some people. He tried to enjoy staying dirty but it was no use so he gave it up.

But, as for working hard, Willie went at t hat with real spirit. Even if he had to sit up six nights in a row figuring he would do it to get out of chopping wood for half an hour on a Saturday. It was a matter of principle, don’t you see, and Willie was a great one for principle.

When he won the governor-general’s medal three years in a row at high school and matriculated in a blaze of glory, it was all because of his principles. 1 don’t say, mind you, that he couldn’t have done it by studying, but Willie refused to work on principle. He did it by smuggling notes into the examination room in his shirt pocket.

These days w'hen you leave school you have to take all kinds of tests like shoving square pegs into round holes and making ink blots before they decide that your life work should be digging sewers, but Willie didn’t bother with any of that. Being already an accomplished liar and opposed to work on principle he knew' he was cut out for a salesman.

He started out in magazines, went from there to waterless cookers, then to insurance and oil furnaces and ended up in real estate and in all of them he was the finest salesman that ever set foot in a door to keep it from being slammed. There w'as no one could touch him at all. at all. But the biggest deal he ever made, as it happened, was one that didn’t come off.

A FELLOW came round to the realestate office one day looking for a small modern bungalow close to the centre of the city. He was a sharp customer with eyes like marbles and a nose that twitched like a rabbit’s, so they put Willie on to him. Willie spent the whole day with him, talking and talking—I forgot to mention that he wasn’t smooth and slick in his speech, like most of your high-pressure salesmen; he had a nice easy way with him, but a bit rough, like a big simple farm boy with an education—anyway, by the end of the day they had a lease all drawn up and ready for signing.

However, the customer was a man who always called his lawyer in on things—a common practice with people who think that everybody else is as crooked as they are—so they agreed to wait a few days.

A week later Willie was called into the lawyer’s office. He was none of your everyday lawyers, the kind that listen to your troubles for an hour and charge you five bucks, but one of the classy type that wouldn’t so much as habeas a corpus for anything smaller than a corporation. In his spare time he was a member of parliament as well, an arrangement that worked out fine for all concerned, namely for him and his wife and their pet Pekingese— though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was any great benefit to the nation. His name was Eustace Doolittle.

This Doolittle looked Willie over like he was some queer fossil creature out of a museum and at first all he said was, “Well, well.” He looked him over again and after a while he said, “Sit down.” Then he did some more staring and finally he said, “So you’re Willie Huekelmeyer.”

It wasn’t much use denying it, so Willie says, “Yes sir, that I am. And if you’d be after signing the lease and letting me get back to work I’d be much obliged to you.”

“Not so fast,” Mr. Doolittle says. “I want to have a bit of a talk with you. About that house now. My client told you he wanted a small modern bungalow close to the heart of the city, is I that right?”

“Yes, sir,” Willie says, “that’s very ! true.”

“And my client’s a man with a mind I of his own,” Mr. Doolittle says, “a very I sharp, shrewd businessman.”

“Indeed it’s the truth,” Willie says. “You’d have to work long hours to put anything over on the likes of him.” “Well then,” Mr. Doolittle says, “how do you account for the fact that you talked him into buying a twelveroom house outside the city limits, thirty years old and so rotten with termites it was ready to fall apart.” “Termites!” Willie says, leaping from his chair. “Termites! Mr. Doolittle, you shock me. If what you say is true I’ll take that lease with my own hands and tear it to pieces.”

“A very easy thing to do,” Mr. Doolittle says, “since it hasn’t been signed.” Then he leans back in his chair and looks at Willie in a very serious way and says, “Young man, you ought to be in politics.”

When he heard these words, Willie’s brain lit up like one of these pinball machines with lights flashing green and red and purple. It was the same as j when he first laid eyes on the trapeze —he’d never thought of it before but I he knew right away that it was just i what he’d wanted all his life.

“We could use you,” Mr. Doolittle says. “There’s an election coming up in three months’ time and we’re short of good candidates.”

“Mr. Doolittle,” Willie says, “it has been my life-long ambition to serve the people of this grand country and I’m l'eady to make whatever personal sacrifice is required in the interests of the nation.”

Well, they had to get him a membership card and date it back a year to make him eligible and build a machine

in the local organization and see that he was picked at the nominating convention, and it was all done so smooth and easy that Willie began to smell a rat. Oh, there was a rat right enough —and his name was Doolittle. Somehow he’d completely forgotten to mention that the riding he’d picked for Willie was one that had been held by the other party since Confederation. It was what they call a safe seat, safe as a church—but for the other side.

Mr. Doolittle was fairly astonished —anyways, that’s what he claimed— when he found out Willie hadn’t known all along. “Why, of course you’ll lose,” he says. “Finest experience in the world m’boy. You’re not ready for the rough and tumble at Ottawa yet. But four years from now, when they call the next election, you’ll be in fine shape.”

“Well now, Mr. Doolittle,” says Willie, “it’s kind of you to give me a chance to acquire the experience. But four years is a long ways off, so if it’s all the same to you I’ll just make a stab at winning this time.”

“That’s the spirit, m’boy,” says Mr. Doolittle. “Do your best. And if we don’t give you much help in the way of money and campaign workers you’ll know that at any rate you’ve got the moral support of the whole party behind you.”

IT’ WAS a grand thing to know that the whole party was behind him with their moral support, but Willie thought he’d better not leave it up to them to win the election. There was a campaign manager behind him too but Willie never met him to shake hands with him until the election was all over and he turned up at the victory celebration.

Because he won, of course. Singlehanded, as you might say, he put on a campaign that wiped the floor with the opposition. The strangest thing about that campaign was, you never saw a word of it in the papers. While the other candidates were fair breaking their necks to get their pictures printed Willie was sneaking down back alleys in case he should run into a reporter. It was an undercover campaign he was staging, with all sorts of wheels within wheels and topsy-turvy tricks.

You’ve heard the old story about the man who lost his pet goat just before milking time and he said to himself, “Now where would 1 go if 1 was a goat?” and that’s where he found her right enough—well, that’s how Willie won the election. I don’t mean to say he used goats—nasty evilsmelling creatures they are for a fact —but like the man with the goat he says to himself, “Now if I was a loyal supporter of the opposition, carrying on the tradition of my grandfather and great-grandfather before me, is there any reason why I would ever vote for Willie Huekelmeyer?”

Then he goes into a trance for a couple of days and answers himself right back, “Why to be sure, supposing I thought the opposition candidate was a bit of a scalliwag and supposing I knew Willie Huekelmeyer to be a fine honest man and supposing I knew he had about as much chance of winning as an Ulsterman has of dying from snake-bite and supposing I felt sorry for the poor man and didn’t want him to feel too badly—well, then I’d vote for him.”

Now a plain man like you or me, if he’d ever asked himself a straightforward question like that and got back such a muddled-up answer, would have done something desperate like sticking his head in the gas oven or rushing out to the corner for a quick one. But to Willie it was all plain and clear like handwriting on the wall. Maybe that was because he had a twisting sort of mind that never went straight to the point but always took the long way round.

It was a twisting sort of campaign he planned too, with all the old tricks turned inside out. Take hecklers now

Willie hired hecklers to come to his own meetings. A terrible uproar they created with their questions and nasty personal remarks and laughing and groaning and all the time Willie would he up there on the platform trying to start his speech. After a while everybody in the audience—even the ones that, had thought of doing some heckling on fheir own account—would he seething and spitting like a kettle I hat’s been left on the fire too long.

Just before the lid blew off ‘Willie would get rid of the hecklers and calm everybody down. Sometimes he offered to sit down and be quiet for ten minutes so t he others could make their speeches, and then they’d look shamefaced and sneak out. Sometimes a man in the audience would stand up and say, “I’ve supported the opposition party for twenty-five years but I don’t believe in these tactics and if 1 can have a bit of help I’m going to throw these hoodlums out.” Half a dozen other men would jump up and they’d toss the hecklers right out the door— being gentle about it, of course, just as Willie told them when he paid them for their services.

You may be sure that before he started his speech again he always told the audience that, in spite of the way things looked, he refused to believe that the opposition party would stoop lo such low tricks and he hoped nobody would go away with that impression. So of course everybody did go away with that impression and all the opposition supporters began saying to each other that it was a dirty shame their own party should treat a fine honest man like Willie Huckeimeyer in that way.

But that was nothing to what Willie did with posters and veranda cards. In the ordinary way of things you go around nailing them up and the other party pays a hunch of small hoys to tear them all down again. That wasn’t

the way Willie worked it. He had a bunch of small boys working for him right enough, but they were tearing down his own posters. They wouldn’t start on the job until they saw a bunch of people coming. Then they’d go to work and just before the people got close enough to catch them they’d take to their heels. That was the negative approach as you might call it, but there was a positive angle too.

Willie would pick out a house with a big opposition party sign plastered across the veranda, and he’d send a couple of his boys to work on it. As soon as t hey began ripping it off Willie would come charging up, grab them by the collars and bellow at them until everybody in the house came running out to see what was up. Then Willie would make a fighting speech about honor and fair play and political freedom, in the course of which he made it clear that he was the candidate of the other party. Then he would make the boys promise to steer clear o/ crime in the future and as a climax would present them with a dollar apiece. On a good night the same dollar hills would be given to them twenty-five or thirty times. At the end of the evening Willie would take them hack and give the boys fifty cents each instead.

When they started counting up the ballots on election night they found t hat Willie had won by a landslide, and nobody was more surprised than the people who voted for him. Some of them screamed with rage and others blushed for shame at having betrayed their party and six of them passed out from heart failure just listening to the news not to mention one man, a retired army officer, who blew his brains out because he couldn’t stand the disgrace. There was a fair commotion for a few days until they ail settled down with blood in their eyes to wait for the next election.

THE way things turned out they never got the chance to boot Willie out of the riding. When the four years was up he had passed on to a higher place where they couldn’t touch him. Dead? Why man, if he was dead he’d have been heading down, not up, and that’s for sure. What I mean to say is that he was in the Senate.

It happened like this. One day an opposition man by the name of Doherty made a blistering attack on the government for not subsidizing butter to protect the farmer. Well, Willie—he was Minister of Agriculture by this time pulls out a book and puts it on his desk and says, “T would like to remind the honorable member”— that’s the way they talk down there, though to be sure they don’t mean it at all — “I would like to remind the honorable member that the decision of this government not to subsidize butter was based on the report of the WallaceBushfield Commission, a commission which was appointed not by us but by the members of the opposition when they were in power.” This is a very telling point so everybody on his own side claps and says, “Hear, hear.”

'Then Willie goes on, “Let me read you a few excerpts from this report. On page 125 the commission reported as follows . . .” and he turns over the pages of the book on his desk and begins to read.

Well, a couple of days later Willie’s assistant rushed into the Prime Minister with some terrible news. It seems Doherty had put some questions on the order paper wanting to know all about the Wallace-Bushfield Commission, when it was appointed, how many people were on it, how many meetings they held, when the report was printed and all the rest of it. The Prime Minister couldn’t see anything to get upset about and he said so. Then the assistant turned pale and his voice got very squeaky and he said, “But I’ve been all through the records there never was such a commission!”

The Prime Minister didn’t believe it at first. He said he remembered that commission very well, and besides he’d seen Willie reading right out of the report. But when Willie came in he told them quite cheerfully that he’d made it all up and the book on his desk was just a report on prairie irrigation projects.

“What are we going to do?” says the Prime Minister, and he groans in a pitiful fashion.

“Don’t give it another thought,” Willie says. “I’ll just write that report myself tonight and get it mimeographed tomorrow.”

But the Prime Minister wouldn’t hear of that. He said they’d have to take Willie right out of the Cabinet and put him in the Senate, where he wouldn’t have to answer any questions about the Wallace-Bushfield Commission.

WE’RE coming now to the turningpoint in his life, and that all came about because Willie fell in love. He’d been a Senator for a number of years and covered himself with glory and there were all kinds of women from coast to coast who thought they were engaged to him, just because he’d dropped a few words in a friendly way —like he couldn’t live without them and wouldn’t they like to settle down in a rose-covered cottage, and so on; but he was never serious about anybody till he run up against Sarah McLeod out in Vancouver.

That was a queer thing too because Sarah was a widow of forty who wore tailored suits and no lipstick. But when Willie first saw her she was smiling and her eyes were crinkled up at the corners and there was a dimple near one corner of her mouth—and Willie took one look and knew it was just what he’d wanted all his life.

He was supposed to leave the next day, but he sent off a telegram saying

it was a tough by-election and they needed his help. Then he took Sarah up to the top of Grouse Mountain on the ski lift and all around Stanley Park and over to Wigwam Inn on the boat and everywhere else he could think of, and at the end of a week he proposed to her. She turned him down flat.

“I’m a hard-headed Hieland woman,” she says. “I’ve buried a husband and married off my children and I’m not the young and green kind that would be taken in by the likes of you. You’re nothing but a big bag of wand, Willie. If you ever learn to tell the truth I might consider it, but not until then.”

There’s no use arguing with a Highland woman, as everybody knows. Willie did the only sensible thing—took a plane back to Ottawa and locked himself up in his apartment with a bottle of whisky. He brooded over the crooked road he’d followed all his life and along about midnight he couldn’t stand it any longer. He jumped to his

feet and cried out like a regular stage actor, “Curse this lying tongue of mine! I wish I could pull it out by the roots.”

That was just a manner of speaking, you understand. He had no wish to be cut off from the art of conversation entirely. Indeed, for a man like Willie that would have been a greater blow than the inconvenience of losing a leg or two. However, he was in no state of mind for sober reflection. He picked up the empty bottle and threw it in the artificial fireplace and, before the sound of the crash died away, he was shaking his fist at the ceiling and calling in a voice like thunder, “I swear to God that never again will I stray from the truth by so much as a hairline.” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than something exploded in the back of his head and everything went black.

The next thing Willie knew it was morning and he woke up lying on the floor and feeling terrible. He had an idea something terribly serious had happened, but trying to remember what it was only made his head ache.

He didn’t have much time to think about it, as it happened, because he had to rush off to a place in Nova Scotia where the party was in trouble. In an emergency like that they always

called on Willie, and you may be sure it was like a load dropping off their shoulders when they saw him getting off the plane. They shook his hand and hammered him on the back and hurried him off to the big meeting.

When Willie got up on the platform they all cheered because they knew that whenever he spoke it was as good as a vaudeville show any day. After telling a few stories to get them all in a good humor he says, “I hear you’ve been raising hell about a bridge we were supposed to build you. Is that right?” They all begin to shout but Willie holds up his hand to quiet them down. “We promised it to you more than thirty years ago,” he says. “Is that right?” The shouting starts all over again and he has to wait till it stops.

Then Willie starts on his speech, but before half a dozen words slip out ol his mouth he knows that something is wrong. “Well,” he says, “if you still think we’re going to huild that bridge you must be a bunch of bloody fools.” When he heard himself saying that Willie was struck dumb for a couple of seconds; then he started again. “We only mentioned it in the first place,” he says, “so you’d vote for us. We’ve got better things to do with our money than throw it away on a God-forsaken hole like this.”

That was as far as he got before the riot started. Luckily the orchestra began playing God Save the King at a desperate clip, and that gave Willie time to dash out the back way and jump into a taxi.

THERE were big stories in all the papers next day and Sarah must have read them, because when Willie knocked on her door at six o’clock the morning after, she said, “Well, itdidn’l take you long, did it?”

“It’s a strange thing that’s happened,” Willie says, “but the fact is that I couldn’t tell a lie now if I wanted to. There’s been some queer sort ol revolution in my subconscious.”

“I think it’s wonderful,” Sarah says. Then she suddenly remembers that her hair’s up in curlers and her face all cold cream and she’s wearing an old kimono full of moth-holes. “Why whatever must you think of me,” she says, “looking like this.”

“Well,” Willie says, “you do look pretty frowsy and that’s a fact. But then you’re no chicken and I wouldn’t expect you to be at your best in the morning.”

“Willie,” Sarah says with a look in her eye like Lizzie Borden just before she picked up the hatchet, “if that’s what you mean by not telling lies you better leave the house. And don’t come back until you learn that there’s such a thing as moderation, even in telling the truth.”

Well, there was nothing for it but to lock himself up again with a bottle of whisky. That seemed to be the only way he could get at his subconscious. And this time, when he’d worked himself into the proper frame of mind, he stared at the ceiling and bellowed, “I’m amending that last resolution ot mine, understand? I’m adding the words ‘except when it seems advisable’.” Once again there was an explosion in his head and everything went black— and when he came out of it, Willie discovered he’d become a moderately truthful man.

That’s the whole story, just as Willie Huckelmeyer told it to me one afternoon when we were lifting a few to pass the time of day. As to how much of it is true—"well, I know Willie’s a Senator and he used to be an MP and his wife’s named Sarah; but for the rest of it, I think he’s just as big a liar as he ever was. ^r