edited: Monday, December 08, 2008
By Richard Johnston
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, December 08, 2008
Become a Fan
My novel is about Americans abroad. The setting of The Big Lie is an American High School sponsored by the U.S. Army in post World-War II Paris (1953) for the dependents of American military and diplomatic personnel. Seven main characters seek love and adventure in the City of Light, interwoven stories that involve culture and generation gaps. One romance ends in happiness, another ends in disappointment and a third ends in tragedy.
From The Big Lie:
During the first weeks of the fall semester Assistant Principal Hal Evans had taken a liking to Bill Helmer. The two of them worked long hours together. But Hal’s school day was not the most important part of his existence. It was merely the price he was paying to be in Paris. He was staying in Paris to find Zizi. She was the most extraordinary person he had encountered since his discovery of the Big Lie.
Ever since Hal could remember, the Big Lie had been an important part of his life, eating away at his soul like a malignant growth. It started with little things when he was a first grader.
“Have you been a good boy, Harold?” a lady from the Aid To Foreign Missions would ask when she came to the parsonage.
“Yes, ma’am,” he would say. It was a lie, a big black lie. He was mean as hell. His father said so and sure enough he could feel the sin bubbling around in the marrow of his bones.
“Would you like some more ice cream, Harold?” a lady would ask him at the church social.
“No, ma’am. No, thank you.” His mother told him that the minister’s son must set an example. He must not be a little pig. He loved ice cream; he could eat a whole freezer full of the stuff.
It was the same thing for the afternoon Bible study group. He knew his mother would be upset if he did not go.
What he really wanted to do now that he was starting in junior high school was go play baseball with the town kids. He might have been pitcher if he could get out to Sunday games. But instead he went to Bible study and thought about the kids out on the diamond. Then he’d look around him and wondered about the other kids who sat there reading the Scriptures. He had his own picture of Jesus. He was okay. Jesus was no damned sissy. He’d knocked the piss out of those guys lending money in the temple, hadn’t he?
He thought a lot about it. Hal decided grownups were phonies who hid behind the Bible and lived the Big Lie. Take Old Man Harris, for instance. He always weighed his thumb on the scales when he sold meat. Hal used to watch him at eye level from the end of the counter. He’d starve his grandmother for a nickel, that guy, and he was a deacon or something. It was the same thing for the others. And his old man was no better than the rest. He could preach a sermon on love and beat the hell out of his own kid the same day.
Hal’s great discovery was connected with the big oak tree over by the church. On summer nights he would duck the Sunday evening sermon sometimes to lie under the old oak, listening to the choir. Sermons and Sunday school lessons were a lot of crap but the music was quite a different thing, something you could feel. A good choir belting out a hymn did something to you. You could see it in people’s faces. Even Old Man Harris had a kind of soft look when he sang I Come To The Garden Alone. If you could have caught the old guy right after a hymn he might have weighed out an honest pound of meat.
Jesus would have liked that music, Hal used to think, lying there comfortably on a Sunday evening when the stars were so bright you could see them through the thin edges of the leaves. Jesus would have sung in the choir for sure. He would feel that music way down deep, the way Hal himself felt it. And he wouldn’t preach any long-winded sermons either. After the singing He would have led everybody out under the oak tree and maybe they would all have a beer. Jesus drank wine, didn’t he? So why wouldn’t He like beer? They would talk, friendly like, about important things— baseball and how the fish were running and the best bait for perch.
Hal had always loved the great oak. It was his favorite place to play. With some other kids he built a tree house in its spreading branches and one night they decided to sleep there. It was one of those summer nights when the wind comes up out of an electric atmosphere and feels and smells of storm. The lights were turned out in the parsonage and everybody was asleep. Unexpectedly the big tree came to life. The creaking branches drowned out the first patter of rain on the leaves and a great hoot owl split the night with a hideous screech.
Then the storm broke. Chain lightning rent the sky. Claps of thunder shook the branches where the boys were huddled. Rain lashed the leaves into a furious mass of spraying water. From the innermost depths of its soul the old oak rumbled in alarm. One by one the boys slipped down from the tree house and ran home—all but Hal. He decided to stay. He crouched there in the tree all night. During the long hours he did a lot of thinking and got his first handhold on the idea of the Big Lie. When finally the storm passed and dawn came to the eastern sky, he was still there wet and exhausted but proud of his courage. He knew he was a man, a man with his own private idea of Jesus and a precious insight into the Big Lie.
Most people in the world, he decided, were like his old man, saying one thing and doing something entirely different. They were all pretending just as he had to pretend when he said he didn’t want more ice cream or that he liked Bible reading class. They were trying to be big shots. They would try to punish anybody who threatened to show them up for the jerks they really were, like the story about the Emperor’s New Clothes. That’s why they liked to have his father tell them that they were made in the image of God, that they were fallen angels, that they would be filled with the divine light of truth as if God had screwed a big light bulb into each one of them and all they had to do was turn it on. That gave the phonies who went to church a chance to pretend that they had turned on the light bulb and nobody else knew where the switch was. These fakers weren’t children of God or any such thing. They were just men. That’s what they were, just men.
Here was the heart of the thing and the reason the phonies who pretended to be more than just men had invented the worst parts of the Big Lie, like sin and duty and love. These were only gimmicks to keep you with your ass in a sling all your life. Honor thy father and thy mother. That was a laugh. His mother worked hard and she was okay. He kind of liked her but his father, the Reverend Evans. Honor him? Recalling the sting of his father’s belt on the flesh of his back, Hal felt little affection for the old hypocrite.
One night that summer, by the light of a full moon, he slipped under the big oak and made his vow, kneeling on the ground with his arms around the trunk of the tree. Then he took his pocketknife and carefully sterilizing the blade with the flame of a match he drew the cutting edge across the tip of his right index finger. Squeezing the blood out he solemnly rubbed a streak along the rough bark of the tree trunk and drew an X on his forehead.
Never, he promised himself, would he live the Big Lie, never would he pretend to be a noble and divine creature who tried to screw everybody else in the name of religion or duty or love or anything else. Never would he care too much for anything or anybody.
His philosophy sustained him through college and two years of teaching. It was amazingly simple, almost like magic. All you had to do was tell the truth. People usually didn’t know whether to believe you or not, but it worked almost every time. He knew what he was doing when he started teaching. He liked kids. They were usually more honest than grownups and they could smell a phony a mile off. He found that out the first year, working in a village high school.
“That’s an ugly tie you’re wearing today,” a boy said to him, or “You sure got a funny nose, Mr. Evans.” If you could teach just a few of those kids to see the Big Lie, that made your work worthwhile.
Then like other young American men of his generation his life was disrupted by Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the army and eventually found himself in Paris at the time of the Liberation. He remained on duty there for more than a year. It was then that he met Zizi. Hal never did quite succeed in placing her in his scheme of things.
Zizi was a Yugoslavian refugee. He never found out why she was a refugee or why she had to hide in Paris. In fact he really didn’t know much about the unimportant details of her life.
He was sitting alone at the table of a café on the boulevard St. Germain when he first saw her. She came directly up to his table and stood there looking him in the eye.
“You like to sleep with me?” she asked.
Here was something completely new. Even waterfront streetwalkers used a more subtle approach. Hal, who had spent much time and energy trying to prove that Freud was right, always welcomed an opportunity to expand his experience. He looked the girl over with interest.
She was so thin that her long hair enveloped her shoulders. Her clear skin and the easy grace of her body suggested a young girl. Faintly prominent cheekbones and large eyes gave her features an ageless quality as if her face had lived a longer time than her body.
“I am open to suggestion,” he answered. “You want to sleep with me?”
“No.” She met his gaze directly. “But I am hungry.”
“Sit down and join me.” Hal pushed his bowl of bouillabaisse forward for her to see. “Tell the waiter what you would like.”
“The smell of that makes me feel sick.” She clutched her handbag close to her chest and leaned against the table.
An eggnog laced with cognac, a bowl of soup and an infusion of herb tea suggested by the garçon was all she could handle. She seemed almost in a state of shock. Hal could detect no expression in the steady gaze she directed at him while she was eating. Ill at ease he went in search of the waiter for the check. When he returned to their table the wicker breadbasket was empty and Zizi’s threadbare handbag was bulging. In an uncomfortable silence he walked home with her.
Want to review or comment on this article?
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!