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I make my living as a vacuum-cleaner salesman. I've met a lot of good liars in my day. None of them are as good as my mother.
When people lie, the story goes, some tic gives them away. They blink or break their gaze or touch their noses with their fingers. Polygraph machines operate on the principle that these physical signs are inside the body too, and involuntary. Breathing quickens, heart rates jump, and the needle on the lie detector skitters over the graph when run-of-the-mill humans try to deny a criminal truth.
Who can beat a lie detector test? Swamis, maybe, with pulse and breath control, or con artists, or cold-blooded sociopaths. My mother claims to have relatives among the first category, and most observers probably think she belongs to the other two.
I agree that Mom would have no trouble fooling a machine. I've seen her walk into parties filled with little clumps of people who each know her under a different alias. Instead of fleeing in panic, she works the room, remembering what fake name she used with each mark, never slipping, never breaking a sweat. A few electrodes and straps on her arms wouldn't faze her.
But it's too easy to say her skill stems from the sangfroid of a grifter. Her gift for lying comes from passionate conviction. She never blinks or stutters in the midst of the most ornate fibs, because she believes what she's saying without reservation. A good liar always starts with a germ of truth and builds from there: that's Mom. She can't distinguish between what's real and what she's invented, which makes her preternaturally persuasive.
I can make a more educatedguess than anyone on earth about when she's lying, though there are no outward symptoms. I just know when and why she does it, and about what. The hard part is reaching backward through decades of fabrications and embellishments to find what she started with, the first hard kernel of reality. Even when I think I've found it, I don't always trust it.If you ask me where Sante Kimes came from, then, I can't be sure, nor would I swear to anything under oath. All I can tell you is how the story evolved.
At 9 A.M. on Wednesday, July 8,1998, I pulled my white Corvette into a parking space and killed the engine. I unfolded a cardboard sunshade and spread it across the dashboard, just like all the other morning commuters in Greater Las Vegas, and then walked to the service entrance of the low cinderblock building on Decatur Avenue that housed my business. I'd been out of town over the long holiday weekend and had a lot of catching up to do.
As soon as I was inside, my sales manager approached me. I heard Greg chirp "Good morning," but what struck me was the pained expression on his face. "Your mom and your brother have been calling here," he said. That's why he looked uncomfortable. He knew I wouldn't consider this good news I hated having my fifteen employees know anything about the antics of my estranged mother and brother. "They've been calling nonstop for the last two days." There was a backlog of sixty messages, most of them aborted collect calls the kind people in jail have to make.
Already I was embarrassed, but I played it nonchalant. "If my mother or Kenny calls again, tell them I'm not back yet. I really don't want to talk to them."
The last time they'd phoned so often was fourteen months before, when Kenny got arrested in Florida for shoplifting and aggravated assault on a police officer. His story was that he was with a "girlfriend" who happened to put something in her purse with every intention of paying for it, but the police got the wrong idea and he had to defend her, and so on.
I knew who the so-called girlfriend was: Mom. She not only liked to steal, she liked to dress conspicuously. A security cop with an eye out for shoplifters couldn't help but notice a senior citizen in fishnet blouse and bell-bottoms, wearing her trademark black wig and trailed by her gawky twenty-two-year-old son. On this occasion, at the Federal Discount store in downtown Miami, a plainclothes detective had stopped my sixty-two-year-old mother as she waltzed out of the store, her bag filled with stolen lipsticks. While Kenny "defended" his "girlfriend," swinging at the detective, Mom slipped out the rear door and went into hiding at a motel. Kenny went to jail.
The phone calls that ensued were almost comical. The first came from Mom. In her breathy, high-pitched voice she fed me the usual stew of manipulative half-truths, lies, anger, and actual concern. "Kent, you have to help your little brother. He didn't do anything." False. "With my record, I can't help him." True. "You're all he's got." I often thought that was true.
"What happened?" I asked.
"Oh, it's just silly, no big deal. He was trying to cover for his girlfriend, and the cops roughed him up, and I am so worried about him."
"His girlfriend wouldn't wear big black wigs, would she?" I joked.
"I had nothing to do with this, Kent," she lied. Her voice changed from pleading to demanding. "This is your brother, for God's sake, and he really needs your help!"
I explained that I was two thousand miles and three time zones away from the Miami lockup and there was nothing I could do for either of them in the next fifteen minutes. The conversation ended, but in the time it took to pour a cup of coffee the phone rang again. Kenny, calling from jail. I'd never heard him so panicked. This was his first real experience behind bars.
"Kent," he barked, "have you talked to Mom?" His voice was even more hyper than usual.
"Yes, we just hung up."
"If she calls back, give her this message for me. Tell her to 90, go, go! I'll be all right, but if those assholes get their hands on her, it'll be the end of her."
So much for the girlfriend story, I thought. Aloud I said, "Kenny, get a lawyer, and do what he says. You haven't been in any major trouble before, and I'm sure they'll go light on you." Part of me still held out hope that this would be the long overdue event that finally shook him. I wanted him to know there were consequences to the way he and Mom had been operating.Son of a Grifter. Copyright © by Kent Walker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.