There was a lie running straight down the middle of their town. As long and straight as Forest Avenue. The boy had been aware of the lie for some time now, but as soon as he saw it clearly, he lost it. It was because a lie needed a liar, and he looked around to see who that was, but there was nobody who was holding the lie with the constancy of the town.
One day in spring, the boy left his house to walk to the supermarket. He wanted to buy a magazine and gum. But it would also be another chance to study the lie and get a little closer to understanding it.
Outside the store there were some boys standing by the picnic table with cold drinks. They were a few years younger than him, but they were a part of the lie. They were white and blond and they had a look the town was already proud of. The town already took their presence for granted. He saw the years spread out in front of them: sports teams and dances and girls and a breeziness in their movements through the town. For a moment he thought the lie might even be centered upon them. There was a time when he would have been embarrassed to be comparing himself with younger boys. But it was all a matter of study now. The lie was real, and somebody had to understand it with some serious and cool detachment.
As usual, though, whenever he thought he’d found the center of the lie, he would forget what exactly it was. He knew one of the boys’ older brother. He’d played basketball with him at the open gym at night, and they’d had a good fast-break connection. They were all a part of the town. That connection had been a part of the town. What else could it have been a part of?
This was no way to study the lie with a serious and cool detachment. Sometimes he thought he was either going to have to become more serious and cool and detached, or find something else to study.
He went in the store, and with the coolness of the air-conditioning and the vastness of the place, the lie came back. The lie was that the place was nothing unusual, nothing out of the ordinary. He wasn’t sure himself if the place was nothing unusual or out of the ordinary, but he knew it was a lie to move through the place with a certainty about that. They didn’t know. Nobody knew. He hadn’t lived in a place where every kind of fruit and vegetable and everything else wasn’t close at hand, but he knew that their certainty about it wasn’t the truth. Somewhere there were people who didn’t have this. He didn’t know where, but he didn’t need to.
Someday he would know where it was. And then he would be able to look back and feel proud for sniffing out the lie. But until then he had to hold it against the people in the store, the people of his town, for holding up the lie. They didn’t have to look like this was nothing unusual. They could walk around the store with some sign on their face that showed an awareness of the lie.
He found the magazine and he found the gum. He walked to the register, where the clerk was a man he’d seen by the apartments near his cousins’ house, on the north end of town. There was something lonely about those apartments, and so he felt sorry for the man. The man had the name of the supermarket on his shirt, his apron, and a pin, and so it was hard to think that the store was the center of the lie, because it did make the man look less lonely.
It was hopeless, the boy thought as he left the store. Maybe he would have to give up on studying the lie. Or else he would have to find some other way to study it. His father studied the lie that ran straight down the middle of America, through books and newspapers. Maybe that was the way to go. Maybe by studying the lie that ran through America, that would cover the lie that ran through their town.
But there was something about the local view. He liked the way the lie wove in and out of the truth that ran through their town as well. The truth of the trees and the truth of the clouds and the truth of the weeds and the grass along the way. It felt very good to see them weave in and out of each other. It felt something like love. Which was a strange feeling because it was not the same as the feeling during the moments when a boy was supposed to love his town. The town fairs or the baseball tournaments or the summer days down at the lake. He needed quiet to love. He needed to go searching for the lie and come up empty, and then feel much older than his sixteen years of age, and in that oldness find some forgiveness for everyone and everything in the town. It was the same thing every time. But he dreamed of a place where he would not have to go searching like that, where he would not feel old and he might even feel close to something like the age he was.
He turned down his street, and behind him he heard some voices riding down 84th Street. It was Elise Freele and Carly Petitbon, on their bikes. Suddenly their town had no lie running through it, and perhaps never had. Perhaps the truth was too honest for him to acknowledge. He turned to watch them, and there was a truth in their legs, the way they were their own and they were also nature’s. Their legs looked like the difference between a truth or a lie being at the center of their town. They looked like a truth that was bigger than all the lies he had seen today put together. Not just the ones down at the store, but the ones at school as well. All that truth was just casually riding by as it went down the hill, and they saw him and Elise called out hi and waved at him and he called out hi and waved back.
He wished he could tell them that he knew that there was something about being girls that was a secret, that he knew that their legs were nature’s but that they were also their own. And that that made them prettier. It made them prettier to see them doing something, pushing the pedals of their bikes. He wished he could tell them that he knew they were always doing something.
He walked home and he thought that maybe the lie was inside himself. Maybe that’s where it was centered all along. Maybe the lie was the thing inside himself that said it was better to be sad and alone than to be happy and in the middle of the action. He wouldn’t mind being in the middle of the action if it was wherever Elise Freele and Carly Petitbon were going. But he also knew that from there it might look like there was no lie and there never had been.
That was when he had to admit to himself that he needed the lie. He needed the lie and he needed the search for it because they had become the main part of who he was. And they were a part of why he wouldn’t be going to wherever Elise Freele and Carly Petitbon were riding their bikes, not today and not ever. There were a whole lot of moments between the times of seeing the girls, and the search for the lie gave a lot of form and beauty to those moments. He got his waves and his hellos in. And he got a lot out of those. It was crazy, but sometimes he felt like he got as much out of those as the boys did who knew where the girls were going and would meet them there. At least when it helped him to see that there was a place where the lie and the truth could touch.
He came home through the back gate. There was a lie and there was a truth and he felt very good to have a lot of time to study them both. He felt sorry for the people who were inside of something and didn’t know how to study it from afar. He believed that Americans could get good at studying the lie and the truth if they tried. He’d known a couple of them. And he thought he would meet them all some day.
Most of all, he was excited to leave his town and meet the ones who didn’t know, who were lost about which was which, who kept feeling utterly sure that they’d found the center of the lie at last, only to realize that there were some truths there too. Those were the people that were harder to come by. When you were sixteen years old, if you wanted to say that the whole place was a lie or that the whole place was a truth, there was a place for you. He’d seen those places, or thought he had. But that in-between, he would take all the loneliness in the world for the chance to live there.
It was funny how easy it was going to be when he found the other people who lived there.
But in the meantime he’d have to keep looking for the heart of the lie, and seeing what he saw when he got there. It was funny, too; you could never get to the end of it. Through the window he saw his father reading the newspaper, studying the lie he had always studied, and he felt a tremendous sympathy for him because he did not think his father had an in-between when it came to America. He was very good at studying it; he was better than anyone the boy knew, not because of a body of knowledge, though he had that too, but because of how much he could do with holding and admitting the lie. Still he felt sad that his father did not have an in-between, because of how much he had seen could happen there, and so he went to the garage before going in, and he found a small blue rubber ball.
He went inside.
“Play some catch?” he said.
His father looked up from the newspaper.
It was very small, the father thought, a game of catch with his son. It was very small compared to the size of the lie that he was trying to hold and admit and never forget about and stake his life and his heart upon the disproving and upending of. It was very small compared to that, almost too small to be seen.
“Yes,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Siamak Vossoughi was born in Tehran and grew up in Seattle. He lives in San Francisco. Some of his stories have appeared in Fourteen Hills, Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, and Kenyon Review Online. His collection, Better Than War, came out last year, and it was a recipient of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.