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Truth and Consequences

by Walter Giersbach

Marshall had been splitting firewood for an hour using my old axe and maul. My wife, Clarice, had found him and hired him for the chore. After a few minutes, I recognized he was the same Marshall I’d known in fourth grade. He had come back, but with a difference greater than weight gain and hair loss.

I couldn’t resist peeking out the kitchen window every few minutes. And wondering what had happened twenty years ago. I wanted the truth.

Truth was Marshall’s problem. Kids in our class called him Special Ed, making sure to let him know he was handicapped. Like when Rebecca shouted in the playground, “You know your problem?”

Marshall said, “No, what?”

“You can’t lie. Not even a teensy lie. And you’re gonna get into trouble.”

She was a hundred percent right. Truth was a string tied around his tongue so only certain words came out. To keep the string from hurting, he did what all our mothers told us: Shut up if you can’t say something nice.

* * *

He whispered to me later that the problem had started the year before. His dad asked if Marshall wasn’t thrilled getting a new BMX bike for his birthday. Dad was all smiles, until Marshall said, “Not really. It’s somebody else’s.”

“I paid good money!” Marshall said his dad screamed the words.

“It’s not stolen property?” his Mom asked, knowing times were tough. We were in the Nixon recession then, and even my allowance was cut.

“It’s some other kid’s,” Marshall said.

That’s when Marshall’s second problem emerged. He always knew when you weren’t telling the truth. It was like a fact was blinking in neon letters on someone’s forehead. Marshall screamed at his folks, “It’s Jamie’s bike, and Jamie got run over by a truck.”

“Honestly, John,” his mom said, “you gave Marshall the bike owned by that little boy who died?”

I remember how this truth stuff kept happening until his folks took him to see a doctor in Des Moines. “A talking doctor,” his mother said, “one who doesn’t stick needles in you.”

I overheard the story when my Mom was talking to Marshall’s mother. The doctor told Marshall how bad things can become good things. “You may have a hidden asset,” he said, explaining an asset is something you own. “Like the ten dollars your Aunt Susan gave you for your birthday.”

“That’s not an asset,” Marshall explained. “Mom said she put it in my college fund, but she didn’t. She took my money to buy cigarettes.”

“Fascinating,” the doctor said. “I’d love to do a case study about a boy who can only tell the truth.”

“I know you’re writing something called ‘Your Birth Was an Accident’.”

Dr. Peterson whispered, “Jesus Christ!” and told Marshall to get his coat. “Meeting’s over.”

Marshall’s truth caused other problems. He got in real trouble when we were in Bible class. Pastor Norqvist said, “Science is all well and good because it gave us modern medicine and rocketships, but it’s got no place in religion.” Pastor Norqvist said he liked to wrestle with evil. “The lies about evolution,” he snorted. “If we’re all descended from apes, why are there still apes in the jungle? Marshall, can you answer that?”

“Mrs. Norqvist can. She’s reading about evolution with Dr. Lundgren, the dentist.”

Pastor Norqvist got red-faced and told us all to pray for Marshall.

Teachers called Marshall the quiet boy, not knowing he got stomach aches from choking down the truth. He was embarrassed when Miss Firm stood in front of us fourth-graders and said, “Why can’t the rest of you little dickens be more like Marshall?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rebecca smile.

“You’re okay, Rebecca,” Marshall told her. “You too, Bobbie,” he said to me. “You’re my best friends.” Rebecca had bad teeth and wore weird clothes, but she was honest. In fourth grade, where everyone’s a liar, that’s worth something.

“So’re you, Marshall, even if you are freaky,” she said. She swung her ponytail in an arc of approval. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Marshall sensed what the secret was before it spilled out of her mouth.

“My mom’s taking me on a vacation. On Saturday, while my dad’s fishing. She said there’ll be a surprise waiting when he comes home.”

“You’re never coming back.” Marshall avoided the stomach ache of silence.

I was standing there by the swing set and watching, not knowing what was going on.

“’Course we’ll be back! We have to surprise my dad.”

The next week Miss Firm told our class we could write and tell Rebecca the class missed her, but the letters never got mailed. Rebecca’s mother was found dead, lying in a drainage ditch outside of town.

Rebecca... well, Marshall had told me secretly we’d never see her again. She’d been sold to some gypsy travelers. Then he got angry and promised to write a book, a lot of books for little kids so they’d listen to their hearts instead of stupid grownups. His first book was going to be “You’re Different and That’s Bad.”

But then Marshall got sick. That’s what Miss Firm said when he didn’t show up for class one day. I rode my bike over to see him, just as he was driving off in his folks’ car. He stared at me through the back window with a funny look on his face. I wondered at that moment if Marshall knew where he was going.

The murder of Rebecca’s mom, her husband’s arrest and conviction, Rebecca’s disappearance, and Marshall’s going away. That was drama I couldn’t get out of my mind during the summer of 1991. Everyone talked about it when they’d meet at Cooper’s Grocery or dropped in at the Tip-Top Diner. It was a collective narrative that challenged our beliefs that the world was rational and just and, well, trustworthy.

* * *

I went to the back yard and hailed him. “Hey, Marshall, remember me? Miss Firm’s class.”

He put down the axe. “Sure, Bobbie. How are you?”

“I’m just fine. I’m selling insurance now and bought this house. You met my wife, Clarice, and,” I winked, “I’m going to be a father in a few months.”

“That’s just fine, Bobbie.”

“I call myself Rob now. Been twenty years since I was Bobbie.”

He smiled and pointed to his head. “Inside you’re still Bobbie.”

That startled me. “Still the truth, huh, Marshall? Where’ve you been all this time?”

“A place called Pineville. They said I could come home.”

“Jesus, Marshall! That’s a sanitarium. They said you were...?”

“Only a little bit. A sanitarium is a place to make a person healthy. Lobotomy is an operation to make you happy.”

I visualized a doctor slicing his brain, looking for the truth nerve. When Marshall’s parents drove off that day, I guess they’d decided it was better having a complacent kid who’d cut the grass and smile at the moon. Better than having truth thrown in their faces.

“You should be happy too, Bobbie. You’re going to have a little boy. Want to know what happens to Clarice?”

I recoiled. “You keep working, Marshall, and I’ll send my wife out with a glass of cold water for you.”

We all plead to hear the truth, but does anyone really want to know it? I’ll have to speak to Clarice before she starts hiring more people off the street.

Copyright © 2015 by Walter Giersbach

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