I didn't intend to lie on my resume. It just happened. It was after the icy reception I received at the last two employment agencies. The first time, a man with a rodent-like profile, eyes too close together, and a gnawing slash of a mouth suggested I try getting a job at a pet store. The next agent walked me to the door of her office after a quick glance at my resume and said the only thing she could possibly think of was telemarketing from my home-check the classifieds.
As you can imagine, I was feeling pretty deflated as I headed for yet another employment agency. This one had a bulletin board near the entrance, cluttered with notices such as "Accent Elimination" (as if it's some kind of disease). "Speak American, Free Consultation." I noticed no one had torn off the fringed bottom with scrawled vertical telephone numbers. I sat in a cracked vinyl armchair still warm from the last sweaty bottom, filling out forms, but even in this dump, the agent couldn't get rid of me fast enough.
So here's my situation. Considering my educational background (a graduate of the University of Nowheresville) and my age (thirty), I am now virtually unemployable. My years at the wildlife center didn't seem to matter to anyone, especially the employment agencies. They just whizzed right by it and focused on my education or lack of it. "Tell us again why you left high school?" As if I had no business even being there.
My mother was always trying to reassure me, her optimism unflinching. "They'll be sorry they didn't hire you. All the studies say that slow starters are more likely to become billionaires."
"What study was that, Mom?"
"I read it in the dentist's office."
It feels like I'm back in elementary school where I had failure written all over me. What seemed to come effortlessly for everyone else was torture for me.
"Cassie, try not to hold your pencil like a spike," the teacher would urge, breathing down my neck like a truant officer and wincing at my abominable handwriting. "And stop sucking on your lip so hard. Lord, you'll tear it to pieces. Why don't you just take a deep breath and start over later."
That was the signal I eventually waited for-she gave up and so did I. You'd think she'd put a stop to my misery but the fact was she just didn't get it and neither did anyone else. The rest of the year I was either "sick" or late on Fridays, very late. It didn't make any difference, I was the dunce in the corner with a scarlet D on my chest.
Sometimes I'd hear a friend of my mother's talking about her child, little Stacy or darling Susie. "My daughter is amazing. She just woke up one morning and could read everything."
"Is that so?" my mother would reply in a monotone. "What a marvel."
I kept thinking, "Why didn't that happen to me?" When would I "just wake up" and be able to read? And then later, with each mounting failure, "What's so great about reading anyway?"
My mother would sit with me for hours reading things she thought I'd like. Her favorite was an illustrated anthology of Greek myths. We read about gods and heroes like Athena, Diana, Aphrodite, Zeus. The stories I liked the most were the ones where humans changed into birds or beasts or flowers. But my mother liked the stories where the gods bestowed special powers on mortals. I guess that's why she named me Cassandra. After the beautiful goddess who could see the future. She loved the magic-that's what she was hoping for me when she'd hand me the book-but I still couldn't read a word.
In junior high, I made up the plots of the books I read based on the first and last chapters. As a result, my test scores on comprehension were all over the place. Sometimes I guessed right.
Sometimes I didn't. I was a whiz at basic algebra, but if I had to solve how far Mr. Smith traveled on a train from his home in Phoenix to his regional office in Albuquerque and at what velocity it collided with a freight train carrying textiles to Tucson-well, you get the picture. All through school, kids whispered "dim" or "dense" or "dumbbell." Not my friends, though. We never talked about my "problem." Mostly, they were oblivious. They'd always get rewarded with As and I'd get my usual Ds.
"God, Cassie, that test was so easy," they'd say incredulously.
"I didn't study." I'd laugh, like it meant nothing. Heathers became my favorite movie.
Eventually, I figured out the way to survive. Most kids do. I hid my tests and assignments like they were pornography. When my mother asked how I did on my spelling test, I'd say, "Great," and if she questioned me about my homework, I'd tell her, "I did it at school." "Doing it at school" meant shoving it in my desk along with a half dozen other worksheets I found impossible to complete. I'd always get found out, of course. The teacher would call my mother, who'd ask, "What's the matter with you?" We'd spend holiday weekends completing all the work that everyone else had finished during school. The threat of "special ed" loomed over me like a death sentence.
So the masquerade went on. I made small strides. But mostly I feigned boredom or talked to my neighbor. In the meantime, my imagination soared. I made up words. I invented spelling. I created wild fantasies in my mind that were ever so much more entertaining than anything I tried to read at school.
"Once upon a time, a bunch of mean, foulmouthed bullies wandered into the woods to gather berries . . ."
It was about this time my burnt-out mother hired a beautiful silver-haired tutor named Janet Monroe. She lived in a lovely little cottage with a view of the ocean. The plan was for me to go to her house once a week over the summer. But, after an initial evaluation, she recommended two-hour sessions three times a week. In the beginning, I felt like a rich kid, although I was well aware that this was a serious financial burden on my mother.
Every afternoon, Mrs. Monroe would lead me through her house to an airy, sun-drenched porch filled with leafy palms, overstuffed furniture, and faded Persian rugs. You had to take your shoes off when you walked in and then say hello to her parrot-a magnificent African gray named Sam who imitated her voice and learned my name pronto. He gave me my first whistle and screeched a flirtatious "Hi, gorgeous!"
All through that summer I struggled with the process of decoding-learning how a written word represents a sound. It's something most kids take for granted, like swimming or riding a bike. But for me, it was hard work.
"This just happens sometimes to smart kids," Mrs. Monroe told my mother in a breathy smoker's voice that trailed off into nothingness. "You have a reading disorder called dyslexia." I was trying to digest all this when she asked Sam to tell her who, besides me, had a similar problem in their youth. That bird was so damn brilliant. He shot back, "Einstein, Rockefeller, Edison, Picasso, Walt Disney, and John Lennon."
"There," she'd say when he was done. "You're in fine company."
We did a lot of workbook exercises and read out loud. Sam would imitate my labored, choppy voice when I read, memorize passages, and give me a beaky kiss when I was done. I got so I couldn't wait to see him. Then it was September and I went back to school. I never saw Mrs. Monroe again.
Sometime in the fall, she called to tell us that she was ill. A month later, my mother came home with Sam. Mrs. Monroe had died and left him to me. The note on the cage read, "Dear Cassie, next to me, you are Mrs. Monroe's favorite student."
Parrots mate for life, but somehow Sam accepted me. The South American tribes believe parrots have human souls. And I'd have to agree. He'd sidle up my arm after school and kiss me all over my mouth and ears. Sometimes he'd say, "Love you. Miss you. Did you pass?" Okay, so he was repeating my mother, but still, he meant it. Other times he'd repeat my depressing downers.
"I'm just a dumbfuck!" I'd shout.
And he'd repeat with glee, "Dumbfuck! Dumbfuck! Dumbfuck!"
"Shut up!" I'd yell.
"No!" he'd squawk back, flapping his wings and bobbing his head. Sam loved to get me all riled up. It was just a game to him, my deficiencies.
When Sam and I first moved in with Frank, they took an immediate dislike to each other. When we'd argue, that parrot would fasten his small beady eyes on Frank, morph into his aggressive pose, crouch low on his perch with his wings outspread, and peck furiously at Frank's face and hands.
Maybe it was Frank's tone of voice.
"Close the fucking door!" Frank would yell at me as he retreated from Sam's sharp-hooked beak.
"Close the fucking door! Close the fucking door!" Sam would shriek back in Frank's exact same voice as if he were mocking him. Parrots do not grow meek in the face of anger.
The two of them never did make peace, even though I tried to reason with Sam. He continued to bedevil Frank in sly little ways. He could imitate the telephone and the doorbell so perfectly that at least once a night Frank would go running to the door and Sam would cackle and scream, "Dumbfuck!"
More than once, Frank told me to give Sam away or he was going to "kill that fucking bird." It got so bad that at one point I told my mother she'd have to take him for a while till things cooled down. Sam's not mourning either.
I get back in my car and head to a small employment agency across from the university that came highly recommended . . . from the Yellow Pages. As I walk in the door, I overhear the agent tell a woman, "Sorry. That's all I have. You know, these days a BA is no better than high school. You really need an advanced degree to get yourself out of the assistant pool."
So what pool am I swimming in? Maybe the cesspool. I watch the woman leave. Sleek is the word I'd use to describe her. I pull on the elastic waist of my khaki pants. I'll never look like that. What does it take, anyway, to look put together like that?
No, I'm not sleek, I'm ordinary-sort of like a generic brand of human being. I don't naturally stand out like some women I know. Although my mother would disagree. She tells me I have "good bones" like one of those characters in her classic myths and that all her friends think I'm beautiful. But I certainly don't feel that way, especially when I walk into a room. Frank used to call it the "wow" factor, something that makes people notice you. Maybe it's my hair. I wear it pulled back in a long ponytail with Peter Pan bangs in the front. I don't know, I've always done it that way. Frank liked it that way too. Every time I wore it down, he'd ask me why.
"You look better with it off your face," he'd say. But after we got married, he never did say I looked good. Come to think of it, whenever I got dressed up he'd tell me I looked like I tried too hard.
I take the application form and slowly start to fill it out. Name: Cassie Shaw.
Education: There it is. I remember watching the Rose Bowl one year with Frank. Who played? Wasn't it one of those big schools in the Midwest? Michigan or Wisconsin. An arena filled with thousands of cheering students. Who'd ever know? A place where when asked what it was like I could just laugh and say, "Cold as hell." Okay. I'm doing it. Michigan. I know about Michigan. They make cars there. Shit. Major: Now what? My hands are shaking. Well, I'm turning into a psychopath, so how about psychology? Sounds good. Everyone knows about psychology.
I fill out the rest-driver's license, Social Security number, address (my mother's post office box, we haven't had mail delivered in two years), age, etc. When you really think about it, most of the application is true. Anyway, doesn't everyone lie on these things?
"So how'd you like Michigan?" the agent asks. I focus on a hairy plant in a too-small plastic pot on the windowsill with roots trailing out the bottom like worms.
"Cold as hell," I reply. She laughs.
"Well, I see why you're here. Psychology. What can you do with that?"
"Right." I laugh conspiratorially.
"It says here, after the wildlife center, you worked at your husband's towing business."
"Yes, I did. He recently died." Okay. So I played the widow card. Sue me.
She immediately softens. I hate that look. Pity. Surprise. I can hear her thinking, "And so young too."
"Well, we don't have much right now, but we do have an entry-level job at the university. And it is in behavioral sciences, so you have some background."
I am oddly pleased by the compliment-even though it's based on a total lie.
"Look, I'm not going to kid you. Basically, it's answering phones, typing, delivering mail, filing, you know, front-office stuff." Better than the back-office stuff I haven't been offered. I casually agree to go on an interview. I'm elated. That is, until I hit the street, at which point I start to get nervous about my lies. But this wasn't just a lie. It was a Category 2, maybe Category 3 lie. Oh, come on. Frank was a lying piece of shit and God didn't strike him down. Well . . . I carefully look both ways before crossing the street.
The campus looms in front of me, high on a hill, like Oz. Red brick buildings, landscaped lawns, grassy areas with footpaths and sculptures. I pass under a canopy of leaves through the Van Dorman Gates, black ornate wrought iron supported by two imposing pillars, one of which is inscribed with the words of Cicero.
"The first duty of a man is the seeking after and the investigation of Truth." I continue walking, gripping my resume. I'm not going to think about the consequences.
Liar. Liar. Pants on fire.
When I was a kid, Sunday school was all about God and Satan, the Twelve Apostles, the Ten Commandments, and the Seven Deadly Sins. The world as we knew it was ordered and manageable, with hundreds of laws and punishments methodically arranged according to the gravity of the transgression. There seemed to be no gray area when it came to sin-just a cold, stark landscape of excruciatingly painful punishments or heavenly rewards depending on the path you took.
From the Hardcover edition.