By Stanley P. Anderson
"Deny everything," my brother Carl whispered as I passed him on the path between our porch and the turnaround at the end of the road to our farm. He did not have time to elaborate.
The inquisitors, including Mom and the Twiggs, who owned an abandoned farmhouse next to our property, stood in the turnaround. I had not known that Carl was being questioned, so it was providential that we met on the path.
Mr. Twigg was long, bald, and silent. Mrs. Twigg was short and fat. She walked or, to be truthful, waddled toward me, stopped, and folded her arms in front of her ample self. She asked if we had been "partying" at their abandoned farmhouse.
"No. We picked strawberries on the hill by the house, but that's about it." The strawberry bit was an inspiration. Mom, Carl, and I had picked the berries together. The comment "that's about it" was thin ice.
"Well," Mrs. Twigg said, "There's beer cans and cigarette butts in there." I recognized her accusing tone. As my piano teacher for one long year, she had frequently accused me of not practicing. I had practiced, but even her cat suspected otherwise.
Mom ended the inquisition in short order. "My boys are just too young for beer and cigarettes. Must be high-school kids."
Apparently unconvinced, the Twiggs drove off.
"That's just ridiculous," Mom said.
"Yeah." I did not look her in the eye. I wondered why she asked me no questions.
My cousin Sonny, Carl, and I had searched the farmhouse, hoping to find furnishings for our tree house. We wanted to add to the items we had found in an old chest on the top floor of our barn, including a Swedish Bible belonging to the previous owner of the farm. Carl looked up John 3:16, and we figured out what certain words were in Swedish, such as Gud. I pointed to a word I thought meant "forgotten." Carl was all over me: "'That's 'begotten,' cabbage brain. God's only begotten Son."
The abandoned farmhouse yielded no furnishings, though I was tempted by an old lamp. Carl found a few envelopes that had been mailed from Europe in the early 1940s but had no stamps unique enough for his collection. Carl and I were hot to get out of there when we saw the beer cans and cigarette butts.
"Somebody's been in here," Carl said.
"Probably my older brothers and their heifers," Sonny replied.
"Let's scram," I urged.
Sonny reached for a beer can. "First, let me try this." After sniffing the can, he put it back. "That's disgusting." He removed a cigarette butt and some matches from an ashtray sitting on a ragged armchair and lit up. He blew a smoke ring. "This armchair might do."
"Too risky," Carl said.
The floor of the dilapidated house creaked as we made our getaway.
Recalling our short visit, I thought the only evidence against us was Sonny's little party, which consisted of one sniff and four deep puffs.
During warm weather, Carl and I slept in a one-room shack next to the turnaround. We went inside to compare notes.
"I told them we were never in there," Carl said. He was a brazen liar, but I was a wily one. I had left enough wiggle room to negotiate with St. Peter, so my soul stood a better chance than Carl's. As for Sonny, he never went to church and tried smoking and drinking, so he had no case at all.
Carl thought that my comment about picking strawberries was a stroke of genius. "It would have been fun watching Mom and old Mrs. Twigg get into it about that."
"Let's parachute off the roof," I suggested, reaching for the ratty old umbrella we used for the purpose.
I knew I had lied. For a few days, I felt "convicted" of this sin, especially at night. I figured I would never have a shot at Heaven until I told Mom the whole truth, maybe skipping the part about Sonny's party. I sometimes wished I were Sonny, who seemed to have no concept of sin. He said he would have told "that waddling old woman" the truth, but he agreed to lie for my benefit. He had no problem with the truth and no problem with a lie. He was what our preacher called "heathen."
Carl was all for keeping mum, so I was on my own when I made my confession nearly a week after the inquisition. I said nothing about Sonny's brief party. When I told her about my guilty conscience, Mom laughed. "That's a hoot. I knew you three couldn’t resist that place."
I expected her to tell me I was wrong to lie, but she said nothing of the kind.
“Mom, I’m sorry I lied,” I said after she handed me a glass of milk and a plate of chocolate chip cookies and then joined me at the kitchen table. The cookies were still warm, the chocolate still runny.
“Well, I’m not. Those Twiggs are silly old fools.”
I was shocked. What would our minister say?
“Did you three bring beer and cigarettes to that place?”
“No,“ I answered, hoping that she would not ask if any of us had tasted the beer or smoked the cigarettes.
“Well," she continued. "There’s lying, and then there’s lying.”
“So I guess there’ll be no punishment.”
She picked up the plate. “Here, have another cookie.”
Stanley P. Anderson has been writing poetry and fiction for about 35 years and has published poetry in various literary journals, including Whole Notes, Descant, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Midwest Poetry Review, and the now defunct Kansas Quarterly. He has worked as an editor for the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, since 1974. Stanley has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland. He is married and has three sons.
"Conscience" is a companion story to The Bible.
Photo "Bible 3" courtesy of Hagit Berkovich, Tel Aviv, Israel.
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