From Suddenly, a Knock on the Door (FSG Originals, April 2012). Originally published in Zoetrope.
Robbie was seven when he told his first lie. His mother had given him a wrinkled old bill and asked him to go buy her a pack of king-size Kents at the grocery store. Robbie bought an ice-cream cone instead. He took the change and hid the coins under a big white stone in the backyard of their apartment building, and when Mother asked him what had happened he told her that a giant, redheaded kid who was missing a front tooth tackled him in the street, slapped him, and took the money. She believed him. And Robbie hasn’t stopped lying since. When he was in high school he spent an entire week vegging out on the beach in Eilat, after selling the student counselor a story about his aunt from Beersheba who discovered she had cancer. When he was in the army, this imaginary aunt went blind and saved his ass, big time, when he went AWOL. No detention, not even confined-to-barracks. Nothing. Once, when he was two hours late for work, he’d made up a lie about a German shepherd he’d found sprawled out beside the road. The dog had been run over, he’d said, and he’d taken it to the vet. In this lie, the dog was paralyzed in two legs, and he’d taken it to the vet only to find that the dog was never going to be able to move his hind legs again. That did the trick. There were lots of lies along the way in Robbie’s life. Lies without arms, lies that were ill, lies that did harm, lies that could kill. Lies on foot, or behind the wheel, black-tie lies, and lies that could steal. He made up these lies in a flash, never thinking he’d have to cross paths with them again.
It all started with a dream. A short, fuzzy dream about his dead mother. In this dream the two of them were sitting on a straw mat in the middle of a clear white surface that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Next to them on this infinite white surface was a gumball machine with a bubble top, the old-fashioned kind where you put a coin in the slot, turn the handle—and out comes a gumball. And in his dream, Robbie’s mother told him that the afterworld was driving her up the wall, because the people were good, but there were no cigarettes. Not just no cigarettes, no coffee. No public radio. Nothing.
“You have to help me, Robbie,” she said. “You have to buy me a gumball. I raised you, son. All these years I gave you everything and asked for nothing. But now it’s time to give something back to your old mom. Buy me a gumball. A red one, if you can, but blue is okay too.” And in his dream, Robbie kept rummaging through his pockets, hoping to find some change. Nothing. “I don’t have any, Mom,” he said, the tears welling up in his eyes. “I don’t have any change. I went through all my pockets.”
Considering that he never cried when he was awake, it was strange to be crying in his dream. “Did you look under the stone?” his mother asked and clasped his hand in her own. “Maybe the coins are still there?”
And then he woke up. It was five a.m. on a Saturday, and still dark outside. Robbie found himself getting into the car and driving to the place where he had lived as a little boy. With no traffic on the road, it took him less than twenty minutes to get there. On the ground floor of the building, where Pliskin’s grocery store had once been, there was a dollar store, and next to it, instead of the shoe-repair guy there was a cell-phone outlet offering upgrades like there was no tomorrow.
But the building itself hadn’t changed. More than twenty years had gone by since they’d moved out, and it hadn’t even been repainted. The yard was still the same too, a few flowers, a spigot, a rusty water meter, weeds. And in the corner, next to the clotheslines, was the white stone, just lying there.
He stood in the backyard of the building where he’d grown up, wearing his parka, holding a big plastic flashlight, feeling strange. Five thirty a.m. on a Saturday. Let’s say a neighbor showed up—what would he say? My dead mother appeared in my dream and asked me to buy her a gumball, so I came here to look for change?
Strange that the stone was still there, after all those years. Then again, if you thought about it, it’s not as if stones just get up and walk away. He picked it up, gingerly, as if there might be a scorpion hiding beneath it. But there was no scorpion, and no snake either, and no coins. Just a hole the width of a grapefruit, and a light shining out of it.
Robbie tried to peek into the hole, but the light dazzled him. He hesitated for a second, then reached in. Lying on the ground, he extended his arm all the way up to his shoulder, trying to touch something at the bottom. But there was no bottom and the only thing he could reach was made of cold metal and felt like a handle. The handle of a gumball machine. Robbie turned it as hard as he could and felt the handle respond to his touch. This was the moment the gumball should have rolled out. This was exactly when it should have made its way from the metallic innards of the machine into the hand of the little boy waiting impatiently for it to emerge. This was exactly the moment when all those things were supposed to happen. But they didn’t. And as soon as Robbie had finished turning the handle, he’d showed up here.
“Here” was a different place, but a familiar one too. It was the place from his mother’s dream. Stark white, no walls, no floor, no ceiling, no sunshine. Just whiteness and a gumball machine. A gumball machine and a sweaty, ugly, redheaded boy. Somehow, Robbie hadn’t noticed him before, and just as Robbie was about to smile at the boy or to say anything at all, the redhead kicked him in the shins, as hard as he could, and Robbie dropped to the ground, writhing in pain. With Robbie down on his knees, he and the kid were now the same height. The kid looked Robbie in the eye, and even though Robbie knew they’d never met, there was something familiar about him. “Who are you?” he asked the kid, who was standing in front of him. “Me?” the kid answered, showing a mean smile with a missing front tooth. “I’m your first lie.”
Robbie struggled to his feet. His leg hurt like hell. The kid himself was long gone. Robbie studied the gumball machine. In among the round gumballs there were half-transparent plastic balls with trinkets inside them. He rummaged through his pockets for some change, but then remembered that the kid had grabbed his wallet before he took off.
Robbie limped away, in no particular direction. Since there was nothing to go by on the white surface, except the gumball machine, all he could do was try to move away from it. Every few steps he turned around to make sure the machine was becoming smaller.
At one point, he turned around to discover a German shepherd standing next to a skinny old man with a glass eye and no arms. The dog he recognized at once, by the way it half-crawled forward, its two forelegs struggling to pull its paralyzed pelvis along. It was the run-over dog from the lie. It was panting with the effort and excitement, and was happy to see him. It licked Robbie’s hand and looked at him intently with glistening eyes. Robbie couldn’t quite place the skinny old man.
“I’m Robbie,” he said.
“I’m Igor,” the old man introduced himself, and gave Robbie a pat with one of his hooks.
“Do we know each other?” Robbie asked after a few seconds’ awkward silence.
“No,” Igor said, lifting the leash with one of his hooks. “I’m only here because of him. He sniffed you from miles away and got worked up. He wanted us to come.”
“So, there’s no connection—between us?” Robbie asked. He felt a sense of relief as he said this.
“Me and you? No, no connection whatsoever. I’m somebody else’s lie.”
Robbie almost asked whose lie he was but he was afraid the question might be considered rude in this place. For that matter, he’d have liked to ask what this place was exactly and whether there were a lot more people there, or more lies, or whatever they called themselves, other than him. But he thought it might be a sensitive topic and that he shouldn’t bring it up just yet. So instead of talking, he patted Igor’s handicapped dog. It was a nice dog, and it seemed happy to meet Robbie, who wished his lie had a little less pain and suffering in it.
“The gumball machine,” he asked Igor, when a few minutes had passed. “What coins does it take?”
“Liras,” the old man said.
Robbie said, “There was a kid here just now. He took my wallet. But even if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t be any liras in it.”
“A kid with a tooth missing?” Igor asked. “That little scum steals from everyone. He even eats the dog’s Ken-L Ration. Where I come from, in Russia, they’d take a kid like that and stick him out in the snow in nothing but his underwear, and they wouldn’t let him back in the house until his whole body turned blue.” With one of his hooks, Igor pointed to his back pocket. “In there I’ve got some liras. Help yourself. It’s on me.”
Robbie hesitated, but he took a lira coin out of Igor’s pocket, and after thanking him, offered to give him his Swatch in return.
“Thanks,” Igor nodded. “But what would I do with a plastic watch? Besides, I’m in no hurry to get anywhere.”
When he saw Robbie looking around for something else to give him, Igor stopped him and said, “I owe you anyway. If you hadn’t made up that lie about the dog, I’d be all alone. So now we’re even.”
Robbie hobbled back as quickly as he could in the direction of the gumball machine. He was still smarting from the redhead’s kick, but less so now. He dropped the lira into the slot, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and turned the handle.
He found himself stretched out on the ground in the yard of their old building. The dawn light was painting the sky dark shades of blue. Robbie pulled his arm out of the hole in the ground. And when he opened his fist, there was a red gumball inside.
Before he left, he put the stone back in its place. He didn’t ask himself about the hole and what exactly had happened down there. He just got in the car, backed up, and drove away. The red gumball he put under his pillow, for his mother, in case she came back in his dream.
At first, Robbie thought about it a lot, about that place, about the dog, about Igor, about other lies he’d told—lies he was lucky enough not to have to meet again. There was that bizarre lie he’d told his ex-girlfriend, Ruthie, when he couldn’t make it to Friday-night dinner at her parents’ house—about this niece of his who lived in Natanya whose husband beat her up, and about how the guy had threatened to kill her, so Robbie had to go over there to help calm things down. To this day, he had no idea why he’d made up such a twisted story. Maybe at the time he thought that the more complicated and warped it was, the more likely Ruthie was to believe him. Some people when they bail on Friday-night dinner say they’ve got a headache or something. Not him. Instead, because of him and those stories of his, a lunatic husband and a battered wife were out there, not far away, in a hole in the ground.
He didn’t go back to the hole, but something about that place stuck with him. At first, he continued to tell lies, but they were the kind where nobody beats anybody and nobody limps or dies of cancer. For example: He was late for work because he had to water the plants in his aunt’s apartment while she was visiting her successful son in Japan. Or: He was late for a baby shower because a cat just had kittens on his stoop and he had to take care of the litter. Stuff like that.
But it was much harder to make up all the positive lies. At least, if you wanted them to sound plausible. In general if you tell people something bad, they buy right into it, because it strikes them as normal. But when you make up good things, they get suspicious. And so, very gradually, Robbie found himself winding down the lies. Out of laziness, mostly. And with time, he thought less and less about that place. About the hole. Until the morning when he overheard Natasha from Accounting talking to her boss. Her uncle Igor had had a heart attack and she needed some time off. Poor guy—a widower, who’d already lost both arms in an accident in Russia. And now, his heart. He was so alone, so helpless.
The head of Accounting granted her time off right away, no questions asked. She went to her office, took her bag, and left the building. Robbie followed Natasha to her car. When she stopped to get her keys out of her bag, he stopped too. She turned around. “You work in Acquisitions, don’t you?” she asked. “Aren’t you Zaguri’s assistant?”
“Yeah,” Robbie said, nodding. “My name’s Robbie.”
“Cool, Robbie,” Natasha said with a nervous Russian smile. “So what’s up? You need something?”
“It’s about that lie you told, earlier, to the head of Accounting,” Robbie stammered. “I know him.”
“You followed me all the way to my car just to accuse me of being a liar?”
“No,” said Robbie. “I didn’t mean to accuse you. Really. Your being a liar is cool. I’m a liar too. But this Igor from your lie, I met him. He’s one in a million. And you—if you don’t mind my saying so—you’ve made things pretty hard for him as it is. So I just wanted to—”
“Would you get out of my way?” Natasha interrupted him icily. “You’re blocking the door of my car.”
“I know this sounds far-fetched, but I can prove it,” Robbie said, feeling more and more uneasy. “This Igor doesn’t have an eye. I mean, he does, but only one. At one point, you must have made up something about how he’d lost an eye, right?”
Natasha was already getting into her car, but she stopped. “Where d’you get that from? Are you a friend of Slava’s?”
“I don’t know any Slava,” Robbie muttered. “Just Igor. Really. If you want, I can take you to him.”
They were standing in the backyard of his building. Robbie moved the stone aside, lay down on the damp soil, and pushed his arm all the way into the hole. Natasha was standing over him. He held out his other arm and said, “Hold on tight.”
Natasha looked at the man stretched out at her feet. Thirty-something, good-looking, in a clean, ironed white shirt, which was already slightly less clean and much less ironed. His one arm was stuck in the hole, his cheek was glued to the ground.
“Hold tight,” he said. And as she held out her hand to him, she couldn’t help wondering how it was she always wound up with the oddballs. When he’d started with that crap by the car, she thought maybe it was a cute way of hitting on her, but now she realized that this guy with the soft eyes and the bashful smile really was a nutcase. His fingers were clasping hers. They stayed that way, frozen, for a minute or so, him on the ground, and her standing over him, slightly stooped, looking bewildered.
“Okay,” Natasha whispered in a gentle, almost therapeutic voice. “So we’re holding hands. Now what?”
“Now,” Robbie said, “I’ll turn the handle.”
It took them a long time to find Igor. First they met a hairy, hunchbacked lie, evidently Argentinian, who spoke nothing but Spanish. Then, another of Natasha’s lies—an overzealous policeman with a yarmulke, who insisted on detaining them and checking their papers, but he’d never even heard of Igor. In the end the person who helped them out was Robbie’s battered niece from Natanya. They found her feeding the litter from his most recent lie. She hadn’t seen Igor for a few days, but she knew where to find his dog. As for the dog, once it finished licking Robbie’s hands and face, it was glad to take them to Igor’s bedside.
Igor was in pretty bad shape. His complexion was sallow and he was sweating heavily. But when he saw Natasha, his face lit up. He was so thrilled that he hauled himself up and hugged her, even though he could hardly stand. At that point, Natasha began to cry and asked him to forgive her because this Igor wasn’t just one of her lies, he was also her uncle. A made-up uncle, but still. And Igor told her she shouldn’t feel bad, the life she invented for him may not always have been easy, but he’d enjoyed every minute of it, and she had nothing to worry about, because compared with the train crash in Minsk, the stickup in Odessa, the lightning that struck him in Vladivostok, and the pack of rabid wolves in Siberia, this heart attack was small change. And when they got back to the gumball machine, Robbie put in a one-lira coin, took Natasha’s hand, and asked her to turn the handle.
Once they were back in the yard, Natasha found herself holding a plastic ball, with a trinket inside: an ugly, gold-colored charm in the shape of a heart.
“You know,” she said, “I was supposed to be going to Sinai tonight with a friend, for a few days, but I think I’m going to call it off, and go back tomorrow to take care of Igor. Would you like to come too?”
Robbie nodded. He knew that if he wanted to join her, he’d have to come up with another lie at the office. He wasn’t quite sure what it would be. All he knew was that it would be a happy lie, full of light, flowers, and sunshine. And who knows—maybe even a baby or two, and they’d be smiling.