m a r g i n a l i a

notes from a creative writing PhD candidate

one liar’s beginnings.


Before all else, let me make my confession: I am a liar. For me, admitting to being a liar is just about the most difficult confession I could make; as a rule, liars don’t like to admit to anything. But I’m trying to figure out how I came to be this way—what influences, what decisions at what forked roads have led me to be the devious soul I am today. And as any clergyman worth a nickel can tell you, before you can discover the truth about yourself, first you must confess.

I can’t say I remember the first lie I ever told. It’s been so long, and there have been so many lies in between. But I can only believe that my first steps, first day of school, first kiss—all those many firsts we love to get so nostalgic about—none of them was in any way as momentous as that first lie I ever told.

It’s a dusty summer day. I am three years old, and in the Udall household there is going to be hell to pay; some fool has gone and eaten all the cinnamon Red-Hots my mother was going to use to decorate cupcakes for a funeral luncheon.

Down in the basement, I am bumping the back of my head against the cushion of the couch. This peculiar habit, head-bouncing as we called it in the house, was something I liked to do whenever I was nervous or bored. I was most satisfied with the world when I could sit on that couch and bounce my head against the back cushion—you know, really get up a good rhythm, maybe a little Woody Woodpecker on the TV—and not have anyone bother me about it. Along with worrying that their son might be retarded on some level, my parents also became concerned about the living room couch—all this manic head-bouncing of mine was wearing a considerable divot in the middle cushion (my preferred section) right down to the foam. So my father, after trying all he could think of to get me to desist, finally threw up his hands and went to the town dump and came back with a prehistoric shaggy brown couch that smelled like coconut suntan oil. He put it down in the basement, out of sight of friends and neighbors, and I was allowed to head-bounce away to my heart’s content.

So there I am down on the couch, really going at it, while my mother stomps around up above. She is looking for the Red-Hots thief, and she is furious. My mother is beautiful, ever-smiling and refined, but when she is angry she could strike fear into the heart of a werewolf.

As for me, I am thoroughly terrified, though not too terrified to enjoy the last of the Red-Hots. I put them in my mouth and keep them there until they turn into a warm, red syrup that I roll around on my tongue.

My mother is yelling out all the kids’ names: Travis! Symonie! Brady! Cord! But none of

us is dumb enough to answer. Finally, she stomps down the steps and sees me there on my couch, bobbing back and forth like the peg on a metronome, trying not to look her way, hoping that if I can keep my eyes off her long enough she just might disappear.

“Brady, did you eat those Red-Hots?” she asks, her mouth set hard. I begin to bounce harder.

“Hmmm?” I say.

“Did you eat them?”

I imagine for a second what my punishment will be—maybe spending the rest of the afternoon cooped up in my room, maybe being forced to watch while the rest of the family hogs down the leftover cupcakes after dinner—or maybe she will have mercy on me and opt for a simple swat on the butt with a spatula.

“Did you eat them?”

I don’t really think about it, don’t even know where it comes from—I look my mother straight in the eye, say it loud and clear as you please: “No.”

She doesn’t press me, just takes my answer for what it is. Why would she suspect anything from me, a baby who’s never lied before, innocent as can be, a sweet little angel who doesn’t know any better than to spend all his free time banging his head against the back cushion of a couch from the dump.

“All right,” she says, smiling just a little now. She can’t help herself—I am that innocent and cute. “Why don’t you come upstairs and have a cupcake?”

Right then I stop bouncing altogether. It feels as if there is a light blooming in my head, filling me up, giving me a sensation I’ve never had before, a feeling of potency and possibility and dominion. With a word as simple as “no” I can make things different altogether; no, it wasn’t me who at those Red-Hots; no, it’s not me who deserves a swat on the butt or no cartoons for the rest of the afternoon. What I deserve is a cupcake.

It’s a wonderful epiphany: with a lie I can change reality; with a lie I can change the world.

—Transcribed from the 1999 collection In Brief: Short Takes on the Personal,

edited by Mary Paumier Jones and Judith Kitchen.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still 3, 1977

Cindy Sherman. Untitled Film Still #3. 1977.

Note: Erica Cavanagh, my talented and kind Nonfiction Creative Writing instructor at James Madison University, assigned this piece as required reading in her undergraduate course in 2008.  I’m fascinated by this essay, not only because of its candidness and subject matter but also its fluctuating tone.  I assign it in my own first year English classes today, and students appreciate and learn greatly from the concise, clear way in which Udall writes.  Check out Brady Udall’s work here.


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