The Lie

( 3 )


For Terrell Matheus, the decision to lie about his brother's death is an immediate reaction to the panic he feels at having shot him. What he has not considered when placing the blame on a truck full of white boys are the ramifications—the near riots and the vigilante anger that threaten innocent men. Terrified to admit his guilt, he watches in dismay as schoolmates make a public display of support, and in horror as his uncle seeks vengeance. Finally, unable to live with his lie and the anger it creates in the ...

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For Terrell Matheus, the decision to lie about his brother's death is an immediate reaction to the panic he feels at having shot him. What he has not considered when placing the blame on a truck full of white boys are the ramifications—the near riots and the vigilante anger that threaten innocent men. Terrified to admit his guilt, he watches in dismay as schoolmates make a public display of support, and in horror as his uncle seeks vengeance. Finally, unable to live with his lie and the anger it creates in the town's black community, he is forced to come to terms with the terrible truth and the incalculable hurt he has caused his parents, who have effectively lost both sons with a single shot.

Though he is not sent to jail, Terrell finds himself in a prison of another kind. Shunned by former friends and forced to live away from home, he finds unexpected solace in the friendship of his dead brother's girlfriend, who stands by him as he struggles to rebuild his life.

Set in Evansville, Indiana, in the mid-1970s, The Lie is imbued with a perfect sense of time and place. It is a startling and controversial novel about family, redemption, and the price of honesty.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Set in the African-American community of Evansville, Ind., in the 1970s, Bennett's (The Colored Garden) moral tale is brought back from the brink of didacticism by compelling main characters. After accidentally shooting and killing Lawrence, his older brother, teenager Terrell Matheus blames the killing on three white boys in a pickup truck. In the wake of Lawrence's death, Terrell's parents sink into depression, his community flashes with racial unrest and Terrell endures a waking nightmare of guilt. After Lawrence's funeral, Terrell receives a friendly overture from Tamara Groves, an older girl who Lawrence was pursuing and who thinks her boyfriend, the neighborhood thug, may have killed Lawrence. Bonded by their guilt, Terrell and Tamara become wary allies, even after Terrell's lie is exposed, causing even more agony for Terrell's family and the community. What follows is an uneasy road to redemption for Terrell, and a period of transformation for Tamara. Though the supporting cast feels a little flat, Terrell and Tamara are wonderful characters whose complexity and self-determination demonstrate Bennett's exciting if still developing talent. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565125735
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 7/7/2009
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 307
  • Sales rank: 1,500,369
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

O. H. Bennett is the author of a previous novel, The Colored Garden. He lives in northern Virginia.

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First Chapter

The Lie

By O. H. Bennett

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Copyright © 2009 O. H. Bennett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-573-5

Chapter One

His brother lay on the front porch, on the old, warped boards, eyes fixed on the bare bulb that hung above him. He was exposed lying there as if he were naked, because that is how it must feel when people can stare at you and you can't stare back.

Lawrence had been lying out there for a long time, and Terrell wondered if his brother would still be out there when their mom and dad came home. Lawrence had been out there when no one else had been. Terrell had checked. Standing over him, he had looked both directions on Gum Street and then he'd scanned each porch within view. He saw no one. Now, as if by magic, the entire neighborhood had turned out to see the body on the porch of the Matheus place. Children craned their necks and shoved one another. Some darted away to spread the word. Some neighbors whispered; others talked loudly. Old women caught their breaths and held the name of Jesus on their lips.

Lawrence's eyes stared straight at the dangling porch light. His mouth was partly opened, and that, along with his eyes, gave him a quizzical expression as if he were puzzled by the swarm of strangers around him. A photographer moved from his head to his feet and to one side then the other. Still Lawrence lay in his soaked T-shirt, wondering at it all.

Terrell could see the abrupt flashes of light from the camera through the front window blinds. The police had made no move to take Lawrence away or to cover him. They were more interested in Terrell, and his answers to their rapid spray of questions.

He could hear his answers as if he were just another person in the room. The questions kept coming. It was clear they wanted him to speed up his answers, to speak without thinking.

This is the story Terrell Matheus told the police:

"I was in the kitchen getting some punch.

"It was about three thirty or so, I don't know. Sometime after school.

"I was looking around for a clean glass, and I heard Lawrence's voice from outside and it sounded like he was cussing somebody.

"No. Don't remember him saying any names. He didn't know these guys. I told you that. So I went up front to see what was going on. The front door was open. The screen door was closed. Lawrence stood right in front of the door but was looking down the street.

"I didn't see the truck the first time it came around. There's a lot of cars parked on the street and trees along the sidewalk. I think I heard it, though, one of those busted muffler-sounding engines.

"Yeah, I asked him what was going on. He said some white boys in a white pickup truck stopped in front of the house just as he was coming up the stairs and asked him directions to the courthouse.

"Yes, he said he was just getting home when they honked at him. They said, Hey, bro, do you know the way to the county courthouse?

"He said they called him bro.

"No, I didn't hear the honk. I guess he said they honked, or maybe they just said hey or something. Lawrence, he say, he told them how to get there, and then they waited till he was halfway up the steps and asked if he knew the way to Africa 'cause he should get his black monkey ass on home. Then they cut outta there, squealing their tires.

"He said something like, You better burn rubber, you fucking country crackers. Yeah, that's what he said.

"No. I didn't hear that. That's what he told me he said. I just heard him cussing.

"Yeah. I think I did hear the tires peeling.

"Yeah, nah, I'm sure. Sure.

"He was pretty pissed off. Who wouldn't be? I was pissed just hearing him tell it.

"There were three of them in the front of the truck.

"No. He didn't tell me that.

"No. I didn't ask. I saw when they came back around.

"While we was talking. While he was telling me what happened.

"No, I was still in the house behind the screen door.

"About a couple of feet from the door ... I don't know. I guess he walked to the edge of the porch.

"Like I said, they came back around and we could hear that loud engine and the gears switching. And Lawrence says, Oh, they want to fuck with me. I made to come out and he waved me back in. He said something like, They can't come on our street and talk shit. I don't think he thought they were going to get out and fight or anything. I don't know. I don't know. They didn't slow down much. He took one step down, I think, although I'm not sure - and they fired. It hit him all up in his chest and all. Around here. And then he fell backward. And it was so sudden I wasn't sure what happened. Like I saw it, but it didn't make any sense. He was standing there and then he wasn't, like that. Lawrence ... he, Lawrence ...

"I saw an arm pulled back in the pickup's window. The closest guy fired the shot. He had a black cap and blond hair, long, and there was another guy leaning over to see. And somebody driving - there were three of them. And they drove off.

"Nah, I don't know guns.

"Didn't think to look at the plates.

"Teenagers, I guess. Maybe older. Probably older.

"Chevy. I saw the Chevy sign on it. I don't know the year ... old and beat up.

"When I went to open the door. It slipped from my hand. I forgot I had it. I kneeled down by him. Blood was all over his front and behind him on the walls too. His shirt was just soaked, just soaked. And he says, Oh. He says oh a couple of times, and I went to call emergency and I slipped and that's when I cut my hand on the glass.

"Then I called nine-one-one, and then I came back out.

"I wanted to get my brother to the damn hospital! What I want to talk about them crackers and their damn truck for on the phone?

"No, I didn't notice anybody else around. I was looking at Lawrence. I shouted at him. I patted his face 'cause I didn't want him to go to sleep. I wanted to keep him awake. I thought if I could keep him awake ... but, I guess, he was dead already.

"No. That's all."

The hardest part for Terry wasn't the police officer. The hardest part was facing his parents. They arrived separately. Since the shooting, he'd felt each minute layered onto his life like brushstrokes, but later the minutes, like brushstrokes, blended together and he couldn't recall even the hours or the sequence of events. His father had come home. Terry sat in the front room on the sofa next to a police officer. He knew Lawrence was still out there, lying there.

Red and blue lights, chasing each other, circled the walls. He could hear the ambulance's idling engine.

His father still held his lunch bucket in his hand. He had stumbled into the living room and then ran out of momentum. He wore expressions Terry had not seen before on his father's face. Preston Matheus's round and wide-opened eyes questioned Terry. They pleaded with Terry to tell him that what had happened had not happened at all. The muscles of his face quivered and they seemed on the verge of shattering. Here was a pitiable, vulnerable father he'd never seen before.

Terry did not like seeing him that way and so he looked down at his left palm, wrapped with a cloth stained pink.

But the delicate wavering could be heard in his father's voice too. "Terry? Terry?"

Terry shook his head. He couldn't say it, not again, not to him.

"Terry, what happened? What happened to your brother?" His father's voice caught and choked.

Terry did not want to hear it.

The policeman patted Terry's back and Terry shrugged the hand away.

The stabbing light of flash cameras came through the front windows. Others came in the house. They walked by the scene in the middle of the living room, his father unable to advance another foot, and the son on the very edge of the couch unable to say another word. They spoke in hard, direct, and emotionless voices.

"... only immediate family."

"... spray pattern."

"Have Taylor dig it out of the siding only after he measures the entry angle."

"... a list of friends and acquaintances before we leave."

Terry wasn't sure when they were speaking to him or to each other. Once he trusted himself, Terry managed a deep breath, and said, "Some white boys just drove by and shot him, Dad." It was all he could say. All he ever wanted to say. He could feel his father still hovering there.

His mother's scream, just like the shot itself, he would carry with him always. It would fill up silences and knife in at unexpected moments, through music or movie dialogue. She screamed and called God.

Terry looked toward the door. There were competing shouts coming from a cluster of people.

Only then did his father move. Hearing his wife's shriek brought Preston back to reality just enough to act and he went to the door just as his wife was being trussed through.

"Oh, my good Lord." Terry's mother's hands shook as she held them in front of her, her body bent and trembling. "Oh! My Lord. Ah, sweet Jesus! No!"

They collided into one another, husband and wife, and remained in an awkward embrace. He barely held her up.

"No. No. No. No. No, my Lord, no. Not my baby ..."

Policemen hovered nearby, waiting for them both to collapse. One cop eased the lunch bucket from his father's hand. It looked to Terry as if his mother did not see his father, and didn't see Terry either, although her face was turned toward him. Her lips were stretched in an anguished, silent scream too full of pain to be heard by human ears.

"Mama!" Terry called. "No," he cried, and buried his face in his hands.

He looked up to see two of the officers help his parents up the stairs.

Later someone told him the family could use only the side and back doors until the initial part of the investigation was over.

It was late evening when Terry's uncle, Cap Porter, arrived at the house. Terry heard his familiar, heavy voice distinguishable from the babble on the porch. Terry looked out the living room window and was astonished to see the sidewalks and streets packed with people from the neighborhood standing shoulder to shoulder. The porches across the street were full as well. The old lady across the street who baked sugar cookies for them at Christmas stood on her porch with her hand over her mouth. Terry could see her white hair turn blue and red in the rotating lights from the squad cars. Officers strung yellow tape. Nearer the corner, four houses down, a channel 14 news truck was setting up floodlights.

He heard his uncle entering by the side kitchen door. Until then, Terry had not seriously considered going upstairs. Even the one time when he heard his mother call his name and the police officer had nodded assent to him, Terry had held his place.

Cap Porter had not been in this house in three years, since brother and sister had a falling out, over what, neither of them would say, although Terry believed it was over the way Cap lived. Yet here he was: the first of the family to arrive.

Cap's face was broader than Terry remembered, and his mustache was speckled with gray. He stood over Terry, arms crossed high on his chest. "What the hell happened?" he asked.

Terry pressed his hands over his eyes. God, he thought, how many times will I have to say it? Everyone will have to hear it from him. The police could tell them, but it wouldn't be the same. He uncovered his eyes and inhaled through the tent of his fingers. He felt vomit rise in his throat and he swallowed it back down. Talking behind his hands, he said, "Some white boys drove by. They shot him while he was out on the porch."

"Look up at me," Cap said. "Look up here. Did you know these boys?"

Terry shook his head.

"Terrell, look at me. What was -" Cap stopped, glanced sidelong at the nearby officer. "Come here." He grabbed his nephew by the upper arm and pulled him from the couch. Not relaxing his grip, he hurried Terry into the kitchen. "Where's your mama?"

"Upstairs with Dad."

"Okay. Now, what was you involved in? You and Lawrence?"

"Why you think it's like that, Cap?"

"'Cause I know you boys as good as your Daddy does, but I ain't your daddy. Means I can see some things better."

"Let go," Terry said, and pulled his arm free.

The kitchen was as Lawrence and Terry had left it that morning, dishes on the table, dishes piled in the sink, cabinet doors open. Only the light over the sink shone and Terry was glad it was dim in there.

"Tell me something, boy," Cap said. His face was set in a half snarl, his brow pushed over his eyes. He was shorter than Terry's father by half a head, but heftier, maybe forty pounds heavier. Terry had always hoped he'd grow into a physique more like that of his uncle than his father, but now that he was seventeen he knew it wasn't going to turn out that way. Terry had the weight but not the build, and his body was soft all over.

"What do you know about it?" Terry asked. "You ain't been around here in years. You think you know people you ain't seen for -"

"All right. All right. I got to go see your mama. God, poor Judy. My poor sis," he said. "I'm going to make some phone calls. I know some people. If these boys are anywhere around, I'm going to find them before the cops do."

Terry watched his uncle stride down the hall. He hesitated at the stairs but only for a second and then leaped up them. Terry sat down at the kitchen table, his elbow against a plate that held the dried corners of a piece of toast. It was Lawrence who always left the crusty corners of his toast. Lawrence.

Terry listened for the voices of his parents and uncle a floor above him. He could visualize that reunion. There would be that moment of awkwardness when they laid eyes on each other for the first time in three years, and then Cap would hug his sister and there would be nothing to say, no acknowledgment of the three years of silence, just the knowledge that blood comes home to blood at times like these.

The voices that Terry heard, however, were those of the cops and photographer out front. He heard what he suspected was a gurney bumping the steps. They were finally taking Lawrence away. Strange hands would grab at his brother's legs and arms and head, invading Lawrence's space. The thought tugged at him, and he stood. Lawrence would not know these hands lifting him. Now the crowd might be rewarded for their patience. Maybe the sheet covering him might slip off and they just might get a peek at Lawrence Matheus, who could not peek back at them, who would be still and bloody and different now.

Terry imagined he could feel Lawrence receding from him as the coroner's wagon eased through the press of people packing Gum Street. He felt his brother's presence diminishing like the light from the TV when its turned off, shrinking rapidly to blankness, leaving only the small, glowing dot that slowly dwindles to a point.

In a heavy haze, Terry numbly crossed the kitchen to the sink. The faucet dripped; he shut it off. He stood over the sink filled with plates and glasses. They had finally taken his brother away.

Lawrence had looked directly into Terry's eyes in his last moment. Remembering, Terry brought a hand up to cover his mouth. Maybe Lawrence knew everything in that moment: who had shot him, what had happened, and what it meant. Or maybe he knew nothing past the pain and helplessness, saw nothing beyond the little dot on the television screen as it slowly faded.

* * *

Cap returned to the kitchen, his hands jammed in his pockets. He looked at Terry as though seeing him for the first time. "Your ma wants to see you," he said, "Do you think you can be strong for her? You're seventeen, right? Time like this is when being a man counts for something. And being a part of a family counts for everything."

Terry nodded, but he felt a hollowness in his heart.

"Wait a bit before you go up, though," Cap was saying. "Tell me everything you remember about this truck." An accusing tone lined his words again.

Terry wanted to please Cap, hoping that if he could, Cap would go away. "It was dirty," Terry said. "Like they'd been running it in mud."

"Splashed up against it."

"Yeah, rooster tails. From the wheel wells and across the door." Terry supplied details he hadn't given the police. "And I saw trash in the back. Beer cans and McDonald's wrappers. And it looked dented up and a bit rusty too, along the bottom."

Cap waited.

Terry couldn't think of anything else to say. He had no more details to offer. He kept his eyes on the breakfast dishes, on the remnants of eggs and grits dried on them. If only Cap and the police would go away, he thought.


Excerpted from The Lie by O. H. Bennett Copyright © 2009 by O. H. Bennett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 17, 2010

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  • Posted July 29, 2009

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    A powerful novel of family, lies and redemption

    A teenager in trouble will often find it easier to lie when confronted with a bad situation. When Terrell Matheus accidentally shoots and kills his older brother Lawrence, his instinct is to lie. He tells his parents and the police that a truck with white boys accosted Lawrence on the front porch of their home and shot and killed him.

    So begins The Lie, the powerful debut novel by O.H. Bennett. The African- American Matheus family moved from the projects to a nice home in a middle class neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana. Mom and Dad both work full-time jobs, the boys go to a good high school.

    The story is set in the 1970's, but if I didn't read that in the book summary, I might not have known that. The situation is one that could be seen on the nightly news today, and there isn't much in the story that struck me as 1970s. The clothes, the language- it all seemed contemporary.

    Terrell sticks to his story, somehow thinking that it will be less painful for his parents than the truth. Students at the high school lionize Lawrence, making him into a martyr. Tensions between blacks and whites rise in the community.

    When Terrell's uncle believes he has found the men who killed his nephew, and the police find the evidence doesn't fit Terrell's version, his story unravels. Terrell's parents, destroyed by their older son's death, come undone when the truth of how he died is finally known.

    The scene where Terrell is forced to confront his lie will leave the reader stricken. As a parent of two college aged sons, I related to the worst pain a mother can feel- one son causes the death of the other. Bennett writes with such power and emotion, it literally took my breath away.

    Terrell's road to redemption is a long, difficult one. He has no friends, and his parents can't have him at home; he is a pariah. He forms a bond with his brother's girlfriend, a young woman with many problems of her own. Their fragile relationship is the one hopeful thing in his life.

    Bennett captures the family dynamic; this is a family that could live down the street. The way in which the parents deal with the pain of their loss of both sons hit home for me. The relationship between the brothers- close when they are young, changing as they became teens, reflects the reality of many families.

    The Lie will break your heart, and though it is not aimed at high school students, it would be a great book for them (especially young men) to read. It reminded me of George Pelecanos's The Turnaround, another powerful novel about race relations and how one lie can damage the lives of many people for years to come.

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    Posted November 11, 2011

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