Rex the Liar

When I was in elementary school my neck of the woods had yet to be annexed by the city of Chattanooga. Subdivisions were a new thing and small farms still dotted the area. At the time I could be called a "country boy" and the moniker would ring true. In all of the six years I spent at Westview Elementary School, I can only recall two "imports" -- Patrick M. from Iowa and Rex S. from California. It was a pretty insular community.

My uncle used to tell a joke about California being like cereal, something about being full of "fruits, nuts and flakes," but I always imagined the long slender state to be a place where all of the inhabitants were a short walk or drive from the Pacific Ocean and a soul could swim, surf, fly kites, throw Frisbees®, run with loping Labs, openly smoke pot, until, when it got dark, they would build a fire from the inexhaustable supply of driftwood, the flames whipping and snapping in the ubiquitious breeze, the pounding of the surf providing the backdrop for the folk songs led by the one guy who would have his guitar. And when Rex, his sister Susan, and his mother moved into our community and school, my ideas, according to Rex, weren't far off the mark.

Rex talked. A lot. And I bombarded him with questions about his home state. Anticipatory questions they were, transparently revealing what I hoped the answers would be. "Is it true that everyone in California surfs like everyone here rides a bike?" "Is it true that everyone has a tan year 'round?" "Did kids bring guitars to school and sit around outside playing during lunch?" Rex's answers never disappointed, and it wasn't unusual for him to hold court during recess, answering questions and regaling us with tales of "life in California." We were mesmerized, jealous, and ultimately grateful that this emissary from across the country agreed to live among and enlighten us.

When I was old enough to work as a bagboy at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store, Rex and Susan had been in our system for several years. We were used to them. Susan discovered boys, but Rex still longed for an audience. In the face of our disinterest in all things California (or perhaps we were becoming better-read and realized that, as Disney pounded into our heads, "It's a small world after all," and that we weren't really all that different), Rex's stories and claims verged on the fantastic. Rex worked at the Piggly Wiggly, too, and I had a Saturday routine from which I rarely varied: After carrying out groceries and collecting tips all morning, a few of us would pile into a car during our lunch hour to drive to the new (and Chattanooga's first) Taco Bell restaurant where we bolted down our food before hitting The Record Bar in nearby Eastgate Mall. If tips had been generous, I almost always bought a new album on cassette.

On one such trip, I was standing nervously in line at The Record Bar alternately checking my watch and looking at my new cassette. I absentmindedly pointed to one of the many posters for sale that lined the walls, and before I could comment, Rex quickly quipped that he knew the man who was astride the Harley in the photo, defiantly "shooting a bird" at the camera. Said that he and his sister Susan used to stand at their bus stop mornings, and that same biker would sometimes speed by and even, on rare occasions, wave to them. I don't know if I was just anxious because I didn't want to get back to work late and face Mr. Broyles' griping, or if I'd just taken all of the lies and bullshit I could from Rex. "You're lying, Rex," I said calmly and resolutely. "That's a scene from the movie Easy Rider. That's Peter Fonda giving the finger. He's an actor. You don't know Peter Fonda, and he didn't ride his chopper past your bus stop."

I instantly regretted the precision and sangfroid with which I eviscerated Rex's imaginary world, the world that once bought him social standing but now rapidly slipped through his fingers. I have visited California a number of times now, so I know how jarring it must have been for Rex, Susan, and his single mother to retreat to the hills of Tennessee where everyone knew each other, where seeing the ocean meant a well-planned and relatively pricey summer vacation. Rex's face fell, I looked down at my cassette, and we didn't say much on the ride back to the Piggly Wiggly.


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