Truth or Consequences

cannot tell a lie, a crippling flaw in our toadying society. Don’t ask me to perjure myself by flattering you with an untruth. Not that I’m less a sinner than anyone else, and would be more so were it not for a few minutes in a tidy yellow bathroom with a claw-foot bathtub, embroidered towels and my father’s inheritance.

My Grandfather owned a barbershop wall papered by cigar smoke, newspapers piled on every available surface, the air sticky with the smell of rum after shave and noisy with men gossiping while they waited for a trim and shave. His prized monogrammed mugs guarded an array of pearl handled straight razors that stared vacantly at the leather strop that kept them sharp edged. My visits were infrequent and quick. After all, this was a man’s world.

I remember the day Grandfather’s prizes reappeared in our bathroom and a Sunday morning ritual began between my father and I, the only free time in our busy weekly schedules. As the offspring of the founder of the Brotherhood of Apostles, a strict sect of missionaries, we never missed church, from 9am to noon and back again until dark.

Before church Sunday mornings, my father rose early and I joined him, perching on the edge of the tub.  He would hand me the mug and boar’s head brush.  I would stir and stir until bubbles eclipsed the rim. Then I would return to my front row seat on the tub and watch as he stropped the razor’s blade. A brass hook held three bound strips as he stretched them tight from the free end. First across the coarse strip of rigid linen and then the thick leather strap. Up and down, the spine of the razor skated, up and down, the rhythm effortless, economical.  He’d pluck a hair from his head, slash it across the blade, and I’d smile, watching it fall swiftly into the sink. Job well done.

My father was a quiet man, never raised his voice, patient, reserved. Sharing this intimate masculine activity created a special bond. I loved the tools, the rite as we would leave the room tidy again. A ceremony shared only by the two of us.

One August brought sizzling sidewalks, dry breezes, and ventures to the municipal swimming pool. My eight year old brother tagged along with me, my responsibility as the older sibling. With a dozen neighbor kids, we snaked down the forbidden alley, dashing from garage to garage to hide our misbehavior, trooped across an “off limits” railroad trestle then slid down the embankment walling the state highway to be first in line and receive the revered key to a storage locker. Late arrivals had to settle for a number to metal baskets stuck on a rack with everyone’s belongings exposed for all to see, scratchy grit from the shelving, and clothes wet from resentful, dripping lifeguards who distributed the baskets.

I was a mature looking thirteen this blue sky day, pigtails tight and beribboned when a high school boy asked to walk me home from the pool. My head in the clouds, I sent my brother off with a warning to walk home with our neighbors. My friend and I chose the long way around, and dawdled over an icy Green River and The Beach Boys vibrating the jukebox at the avenue soda shop. Glorious high school stuff.

I saw our car in the driveway as I rounded the corner. My father stood in the backyard, along the cinder blackened alley, his hands on my brother’s shoulders. My brother had not come straight home. I knew I was caught. I’d be banished to my bedroom. Forever? Possibly. I lied, saying I’d stopped a few houses down at a girlfriend’s. His phone call ended that fantasy.  I had expected him to believe me, he’d never called me on anything before. I felt let down, disappointed he’d challenged me.

Father led me into the bathroom.  “You put your brother in danger. But, this is for the lie. Never, ever lie.”  With his left hand he placed me against the tub; with his right he removed the leather strop. I had no idea what was coming. Our shared rite was inappropriate for this joyless occasion.  He instructed me to bend over the tub. “Don’t ever lie again,” he ordered.  Smack. The sting burned down my legs, heat flushed from waist to toe. Smack. My yell choked in my throat. His betrayal exacerbated my pain.

Confined to my room for the week-end, I wrestled with my conscience, packed twice to run away from home, cried till my eyes dried up, stood on a stool to look in the mirror hoping to see a scarred and bloody butt, declared I knew I was truly adopted, vowed to never speak to anyone in the family, decided I would starve myself to death, wrote venomous trash about how terrible my parents were, and watched longingly out my bedroom window when the car pulled out of the driveway.

They left for church, forgetting me.  No one ever skipped services. I knew now my sin would be carved in stone in heaven and on earth. My uncle babysat, bringing soup, not a word, wisecrack, or glint of eye that breathed any hope. After evening church services, my mother came in. “You may come to breakfast in the morning, before I leave for work.”  Our house operated in cat paw quiet for weeks. I grew more afraid.  No one ever spoke of the incident. Gradually we warmed up, talking, then sharing news, finally a quiet giggle. My lying never came up again, in conversation or by insinuation. 

The spanking tattooed me with truth or consequences. When I’m asked about a friend’s unbecoming hairdo, I sidestep, ask questions, lie by omission, but I cannot fake it. I avoid looking at them, change the subject, inquire if it would be appropriate for me. I cannot boost their pride with a simple lie.

Father and I never shared the Sunday ritual again. Denial excused me, I was growing up, setting aside childish ways.  I was too busy now that I tutored the younger classes in religion. Sundays I primped and changed clothes until there was nothing left in my closet, wasting the empty time. At Christmas, my mother gifted father with an electric shaver.

As time passed other rites of passage filled in the void. My father and I remained close up to his death--when I became the recipient of a cherished shaving mug, a boar’s bristle brush, and several straight razors, all wrapped in an embroidered towel and protected in a wooden box.  The leather strop was absent.