Friday, January 13, 2006

The Secret life Of A Lie

It wasn't easy. It never is. Not when you're just a college student. Even if you are pretty, and even if you have a record of getting good grades. All of that applied to her. Jenny McCormick was that girl. She was pretty. She had never gotten lower than an A in her life.

She waited outside Crimwell's office with a dozen applicants sitting in low barely-comfortable good-looking plush vinyl stools. It sounded like a paper-mill in the lobby, as students flipped through the information packets Crimwell's office sent to students who had signed their names on the roster that hung from the student bulletin board in the psych building.

No, it wasn't easy especially when you felt the eyes of other students on you, saying: What's she doing here? She looks like a cheerleader. If she is chosen for the internship that means Crimwell has something else in mind, maybe something that has to do with late nights when the psych building is dark and empty. Could be. Could be...

She didn't recognize the others. They all seemed to know one another, though, shooting each other good-luck-grins, while they ignored her. She put her eyes on her packet. She pretended to read it just so she didn't see the naked suspicion that flipped her way.

"Miss McCormick," an older man with grey in his hair with a nametag on the front of his button down. Angelo.

She went in.


"Jenny," Professor Crimwell greeted her.

She kissed him on his bearish cheek. "Uncle."

"How did it go?"

"They definitely hate me."

"Good," he replied. "Very good."

"Do I actually have to go through with it?"
"Take the internship? Well, yes I need you." Crimwell got up from a chair, and took her small bird-boned hand in his much larger paw. "You're part of it." He patted her. She winced.

"Stand still while I ---."

She backed away in protest.

He laughed and chased her huffing and puffing in his bulk which was covered in a sort of shapeless overall smock. He finally caught her and put one hand in her hair, ruffling it.

"Now you look like a mess. They'll believe it."

She pouted.

"Okay, now go back out there and put on your biggest shit-eating grin."

So she did.


Cole prison was a big imposing place with one entrance. Prison guards in grey patrolled the entrance, and could be seen at the top of the building, silhouettes in the too-bright morning sun. The van passed through no less than two checkpoints manned by guards with cold expressions. Jenny couldn't tell if it was the chilly morning or if that was ala' natural.

At each checkpoint, a guard compared the van's license plate to a digital readout on a tablet, before nodding.

Mr. Shelly The warden met them, shaking hands with Professor Crimwell. The warden was small and his movements frantic with energy. He had a stutter.

"Happy to meet you. Tttt-ake all the time you need with him. Tttt-here'll be guards with you. Of course. Ttttake care."

The little group were led through a steel maze. It wasn't like television. No prisoners sat inside empty cells on uncomfortable mattresses catcalling each other. The cells were all closed. The inmates quiet.

They stopped before a steel door with a little bubble-window. Behind the door was the man they had come to see.


He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit numbered on the arm, waiting at the table with his arms crossed.

In all the world there couldn't be many of these. There were undoubtedly more than just this one but there weren't many.

He had a perfectly average face. The eyes were symmetrical, the nose had never been broken, the chin was not blunt or sharp. His neck trunk wasn't too wide or too skinny. His ears didn't stick out but neither were they small or pointy.

He was perfectly average in every way you could think of.

And that's what made him so dangerous. That's what made it so easy for the monster in him to catch people unaware. He was so average and forgetful he could sneak right up on you and even if he had a bloody steak knife you'd think he was just prepping a rib-eye.

How many times had that perfectly average face appeared in a child's window and a soft hand tapped to be let in?

By last count he had eaten - not killed, not burned, no - he'd eaten, as in lip-smacking, as in oh-I-want-some-more-this-is-delicious, yes! Eaten eleven people. That they knew of. He remembered hundreds they didn't know about he'd eaten down to the bone like one of those South American piranha to the power of a hundred.

Maybe he wasn't the only one like this. Maybe there were more like him who never got caught. Men and women who were too damn good at the murdering business to ever come under the microscope of homicide detectives or FBI specialists. Not charming, not scoring high on the IQ charts, men and women who were just too goddamn ordinary to make a splash when they tossed a body in a lake.

None of the interns had known where they were going that morning. Angelo had called each of them the night before and told them just to be ready and standing outside of the dorms at five in the am. It wasn't until they'd left Columbia University, that Professor Crimwell, turned and looked each face in the eye before revealing the details, the meat, if you thought you were a comedian (and everybody does, right?) of the internship.

Not even Jenny knew the details of her uncle's planning until the van ride. All uncle Crimwell had revealed to her was that she was not just an intern. She was also the impetus of a sociological and psychological experiment.

"There is a chance, Jenny, if we play our cards right. You could be famous.

That sounded alright to her.

In the van, her uncle was more forthcoming.

"We're going to Cole prison. There's one still there we're going to visit with today. His name's Richard Wheeler. If any of you are familiar with that name, please speak."

The van was silent, except for the ribbing of the tires on the highway.

"Good. Everyone's going to get a chance to meet with him today one on one and ask him questions, to try to figure out the nature of his crimes." He put up his hand. "No questions. Your job is to discover what Mr. Wheeler's crime was. You're here to observe him in his confinement and you may ask as many questions as you can fit into a half hour during your one on one with Mr. Wheeler."

The interns. Sophie Collins (from Texas) had a giant mole on his temple that sprouted one sleek black curly hair from its center. John Chi was a naturalized citizen originally from Taiwan. Tony Newman was Italian, from New York City's lower east side, and jittery and over-talkative. Then, there was Jenny. She introduced herself and said she was switching from History to Psychology. Then, as they'd discussed, she fluttered her long lashes at Professor Crimwall and licked her lips.

The others glared, except Tony Newman who was too busy talking.

John Chi was first to interview Wheeler. The others waited outside. Tony was haranguing Sophie Collins about the cheapest place to live in New York as Collins looked disinterestedly at the wall. Angelo and Crimwall talked to each other, out of earshot.

Collins went in next.

Jenny got up as soon as Collins went in and approached Crimwall and Angelo. She made it obvious she was flirting, flipping her bangs over her ears and pushing out her chest. Crimwell acted like he was staring at her breasts as Angelo politely averted his eyes.

By the time Sophie Collins left the visiting room, John Chi's self-indulgent smile had been replaced by a scowl. Tony Newman went in and came out, never letting up his stream of constant self-chatter. It was Jenny's turn.

Richard Wheeler looked bored. His eyes were knit, his mouth a dead line.

"So what did you do?" She asked.

"That's all you got? The last one asked me for my mother's maiden name. You're blunt. I like blunt." Wheeler smiled at her, revealing silver and iron fillings.

"I committed a crime," he told her. His eyes raked her. "I did a thing that Uncle Sam says no-no Richie Wheeler after he found out I did it."

Wheeler chuckled.

"I'm sorry. You can call me Richie."

"I'm Gale," she lied.

"Gale. That's a pretty name."

She had no more questions so they fell into small-talk. She liked him immediately. He seemed very droll, but not funny.

There was a minute on the caged clock left when he put his finger to his lips. "Shhh."

"What?" She asked.

"I'll tell you what I did." He looked the clock. "If you don't tell anyone."

She nodded.

"I found out your secret. The one that no one is looking at."

"A secret?" She asked. "Look I don't really care what you did, you see..."

"You're not pretty, you're just average, and your name isn't Gale."

Time was up.

The interview was over.

She forgot to shoot her uncle a sexually-charged glance.


"He was in there for rape," John Chi told them. He gave Jenny a look of contempt.

"He was in there for abusing children." That came from Sophie Collins, who looked at his hands angrily.

Tony Newman wrung his hands. "I don't know," he said. "I don't know why he was in there. Maybe he was innocent. Who knows."

Jenny shrugged at Crimwell. He nodded.

"You don't, believe me, actually want to know why he was in there but I'll tell you. Fair is fair." Crimwell scratched his shoulder. "Richard Wheeler was a cannibal. He ate human flesh like you'd go eat a burger at McDonald's. They know of eleven people he devoured."

"The reason we did this little exercise was three-fold. First, I wanted to see what, if anything, Wheeler would tell you. You see, he's never confessed. He was pulled into the New York City police department almost two dozen times. He was given lie detector tests he passed with flying colors. They finally were able to match some DNA from disposed bones. There are still some who say he's innocent of any crime. Even," Crimwall frowned. "When faced by actual evidence. Scientific evidence. That the man ate little girls."

Tony Newman started shaking. "He told me I looked too skinny," he announced. He looked like he was about to faint, eyes circling wildly like a game of marbles.

"Richard Wheeler seems to have an almost supernatural power to fool people. Jenny is my niece. During the process mapped out, you were to think that she had received her appointment as a fellow intern unfairly by using her natural attractiveness." The professor smiled at Jenny. "She's very attractive. My niece. This whole thing was proposed because I wanted to know how that would color your impressions of Wheeler. How would that effect your reaction to him, change your opinion. None of you said he was innocent but notice how, with each implication that Jenny had gotten here unfairly using the possibility of sex, you became more certain that Wheeler had committed a crime sexual in nature."

The interns began to nod, shock turning to reproach and then to understanding. Jenny thought about what the man, Wheeler, had said to her.

You're not pretty. You're just average.


She woke.

She sweat. The room was steaming.

She went to the bathroom.

She looked in the mirror.

Who was she looking at? Was this her? Did she look this way? She shook her head. She thought herself prettier than she looked in the mirror. She looked so average. She had just the right amount of pimples under her mouth. There was a crook in her teeth braces might have fixed but now it was too late. Her ears were too high and the lobes disproportionately bulged in over-flaps. All these years she'd been pretending to be beautiful, but now she had to face the hot music. She was just average. She was an impression of who she had thought she had been.

"I was beautiful once." To be said out-loud, perhaps more than once. "I was beautiful once." Oh, she looked horrible. Then she forgot how she looked. She was herself. The old Jenny, the one who made it through the days being her. What a relief.

In bed, between the feather sheets her mom had sent with her to college, good to curl feet into, she tiredly touched her face. "Oh my God," she yelled.

She was the thing, the average thing that looked at her out of the mirror. She touched her face again. Oh, her eyes had lied, had felt sympathy, and lied again, pretending in the mirror that her face was the old face and not this face of a gobble head. It couldn't be hers. She prodded the flesh. The nose was too-long. God, it was ugly. She cried and wiped her cheeks. She screamed but the scream didn't emerge because she was too conscience of her neighbors. What if they saw her, as she really was.

She turned on all the lights. Even the moon was looking in. Judging this face. Casting its light down and cutting the room into portions, the moonlight dancing lewdly in satisfaction.

Brought the old girl Jenny down, the moon screamed. Brought her down to her fucking knees, didn't we? Cut her down to size, finally. Oh, but now she'll know what it is like to be forgotten. The moon laughed. It bubbled, rabbits, men on the moon, what-have-you, up there, lancing their beams into the room and Jenny cried and hit her pillow with her closed fist.

Then she stopped. She looked in the bathroom mirror again. If she concentrated she could see the old pretty Jenny, gone deep, behind this new face. She took some germ-killing handfuls of hand soap and rubbed it on her face. It itched and frothed like milk. When she dried her face she saw her old face had come closer to the surface. Oh, God, it was closer. She looked around. What else? She swabbed her face with lotion. That seemed to help a little bit. There. Her real face was so close. She dismantled her razor and took the blade from it and touched it to her face. No, this wouldn't bring it back. This would only reveal it. She didn't want that much revelation. She put the razor down.

She waited till morning, sitting in her blankets, watching the sun come up. In the quads, and dorms, students were beginning to stir. Without applying constant soap and lotion her true face was again diminishing.

What had that criminal, Wheeler done? She hurried in her little Toyota to her uncle's house. He answered the door in sleeping goggles.

"Jenny," he said. "What's wrong?"

She pushed past him into his kitchen. He was a messy man. Pots were stacked in the grey sink unwashed with food residue and oil coating.

"My face," she said.

He looked confused.

She explained how she had woken up and discovered that her beauty was gone.

"You don't look any different," he told her. His brow was furrowed in concern and sympathy, as he cracked his knuckles in little sporadic blasts of gunfire. She put her fingernails on her cheeks and brought them down, skinning. She would give him revelation, then. He grabbed her, holding her close until she stopped struggling, breathing snot bubbles and wet into his bulk. She bled on his robe.

"Jenny, I think we've got to get you some help," he told her, at last, sitting her down in a kitchen chair. "Are you on any prescriptions?"

She got up in wrath. "FUCK YOU," she screamed. Grabbed the knife he had been using to butter his toast, and driven by incoherent rage she jammed it into his eye. The knife crumpled the eye. The giant man went to his knees then his head fell causing the knife to go even further until the dull (but sharp enough) end emerged from the back side of his skull, covered in jelly you could not buy in a grocery store.

Her mouth was covered in blood. She had bitten through her own lip. It hung in shreds. Oh, this was rotten. She put one hand on her face, trying to reassemble the lip but it would not go. She finally ripped the rest off, piping up a little scream as she yanked the tender material free. She let her bottom lip drop to the kitchen floor in grief.

She went by bundle of cloth to Cole prison. When she got there she told them that she had been there the day before, was an intern, and the professor sent her back because he'd forgotten his laptop. The guards waved her through. She hid her lip with her hand while she talked. It still bled and when she spoke the blood speckled the soft white of her hand.

She managed to get through the Warden who stuttered politely, who tried to call Crimwell, but of course, couldn't reach him. "This isn't usual," the Mr. Shaw told her. "But of course you are Professor Crimwell's student-t-t-t, and t-t-t-that means a lot."

Richard Wheeler waited for her. "It isn't that often a pretty girl comes to visit ole' Richie Wheeler twice in a row."

He leaned back and folded his arms behind his head and started singing in a girlish whisper. "I love you porgy, don't let him take me. Don't let him handle me and drive me mad. If you can keep me, I wanna' stay here, with you forever, and I'll be glad."

He laughed loudly and put his hand out palm-flat.

"Go ahead and give me your hand and I'll tell your fortune."

She put her hand in his. It was swallowed up in his perfectly-formed hand.

"Someday I know he's coming to call me," he sang.

He held her hand loosely. "Oh!" He yelled. "No, there's no sparks. I just wanted to see how desperate you were, to touch a convicted cannibal."

His face grew serious, the face-muscles smoothing into serious, calm, soothing, the eyes heartfelt, the smile a real God-almighty dazzler. No teeth filed to pricks.

"There's nothing wrong with you," he said. He gazed at the red spot where her bottom lip had once been.

"Sprung a leak?" he cracked. "Honey-bunny, Richie was just a'kidding. I was lying to you." He ran one finger from her wet eye to her ripped lip. "It seems like every time I tell someone a lie they believe me. So I lie. It's a bad habit, hon. I just seem to have this power, fortunate for me, not so fortunate for others." His eyes crinkled in sympathy.

"You really are beautiful," he told her.

And she was. She felt her face, the tear soaked embrasures. She was beautiful. She was. Do you know, Jenny McCormick?, she's not average. Do you know her? Have you seen her? She's striking isn't she.

Even her lip was beautiful. Yeah, it was red and there was yellow infection spreading in it, but certainly that was beautiful to someone, somewhere. Anyone listening?

"Now shoo," he said, flinging his fingers.

"Guard!" He shouted.

She walked through the prison, the guards turning their heads. She walked proudly with her head high and triumphant. Oh, sure she was drooling blood and you could see the white of her bottom teeth, through the rent in her lipless mouth, but she was beautiful.

Later she would go back to her dorm and pick up the naked razor blade and create beautiful vertical lines on her face, then horizontal, in a nice lil' grid, the razor cutting all the way to the white of her skull. Looking in the mirror, yanking flaps of skin back, pulling them off and putting them in the sink and squeezing a bottle of toothpaste out on them. Then brushing those pearlies, and what convenience because now she didn't even have to open her mouth. She could put the brush right there in the new slit and just have at it. By midnight she had discovered that she could put lotion in her skull by lifting open the flaps and applying it directly. They found her next to her mirror with q-tips stuffed in her nose to stop the hemorrhage when she decided to Mabeline her hot wet brain.

Richie lay in his bunk with his legs kicked back. Hell, if you can't eat em' join em right? The warden knelt, licking his feet, sucking the toes like a baby on a pacifier. The warden grinned like a puppy, considerate little wagger, and Richie patted him on the head. He'd told the warden how his voice sounded and the warden had chopped the end of his tongue off to try to be less conspicuous. What they never got, Richie thought, was that he wasn't lying.

It was all true.

"I love you Porgy," he told the warden. "I wanna' stay with you forever. I've got my man."

The End


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