a short story by Frank Diamond
AUTHOR’S NOTE: My short story, “Lie Detector,” was published today (July 30, 2022) in a little literary magazine called redrosethorns. To buy the magazine, almost 100 pages of (I think) cutting edge short stories, poems, and art, go to this link: https://www.redrosethorns.com/redrosethornsmagazineissue01. And below is a version of “Lie Detector” on my WordPress page.
Dude comes into the bank wearing a white mask, but everybody’s wearing masks these days thanks to COVID, and his hoodie disguises the fact that this guy, the robber, wears a ski mask. Covers the face and head. He pulls a gun, yells: “Get away from those buttons! Now! Show your hands!”
There’s just me and Mary at the windows this time of day, in mid-afternoon. It’s the lull. No customers. We both step back, hold our hands up, make sure he sees; I do it like I’m exercising, the stretch before you bend down to touch your toes. I don’t know what his next move will be because we can’t get him cash standing like this. He’s probably going to rush either me or Mary and make one of us empty the drawer. It’s only one guy, at least that’s all I’m seeing. If it’s just him, he can’t have a master plan. Must be a tweaker, or some other kind of junkie. He ain’t getting no more than $5,000. He could have just Googled that.
Then, Mickey Tulsa, our security guard, rushes out from behind the little dividing wall separating the lobby from the rest of the bank. “Not today,” Mickey says. “Uh-uh.” Very matter of fact. Says it like someone’s asked him if he wants a croissant and Mickey’s always trying to swear off croissants because they make him sleepy.
Before the robber can turn fully around, Mickey’s got him in a bear hug.
Dude starts wriggling, but Mickey holds tight and somehow knocks the gun from the dude’s hand and kicks it aside. It clickity-clacks across the recently waxed floors of Townright Savings and Loan: “Philadelphia’s Good Neighbor Bank,” as the commercials say.
Mary cries “Oh!” and hits the floor and I know that I should do the same but I can’t stop watching. Mickey’s got one of the guy’s wrists and jerks it up behind the back, while Mickey’s other arm choke holds the dude.
“You mother…!” the robber cries.
“Settle or I break it,” Mickey warns.
Then the cops bust in. Somebody here must have hit the button. (I learned later that it was Mickey. Of course.)
They pull the mask off the bank robber and I’m like “Oh, shit!”
Judson Powell, my cousin who I have known all my life. It’s him. He is the robber. This I process even though Judson’s face looks like something from a circus mirror. The eyes wild and bloodshot. The mouth an O. Sweat beads the brow. But it’s Judson, all right.
As they start bundling him off, he looks back at me.
“I’m so sorry, Natalie! Natalie! I’m sorry!”
“Judson!” I scream, half in anger and half in concern. As the cops take him out to a patrol car and down to the Roundhouse where he’ll spend the night, I start for the counter gate but another cop’s waiting on the other side.
“Could you come with me, miss?” It’s a question where only one answer’s allowed. So, guess what? I’m going to the Roundhouse, too. They escort me to my ride, an unmarked car, where some plain-clothes opens the door for me as if I’m getting into a limousine. I’m not getting the Judson treatment. For now. As we drive off, the adrenal lowers and I am processing in real time. I understand. Of course they’re going to at least consider the possibility that it’d been an inside job.
Thanks for that, Judson.
Then I think: No. It’s better this way. Even if Judson hadn’t said a word, I would have told the cops that he’s my cousin right off. Because you know they’d find out soon enough and then it’d be worse suspicion on me. Next thing I know I’m in one of those little interrogation rooms and I’m surprised by how much it looks like TV or the movies. This is some heavy-duty Law and Order shit.
Two come in. One’s a woman I’d say around my age, 28 or maybe a bit older, in a tailored suit and smooth copper skin. Pretty, but hard looking. Sensible shoes, sensible hairdo, sensible eyeglasses … sensible, sensible, sensible. Looks pissed off at me already and we didn’t even say hello.
The man’s a biggin; about 6 foot, three. Hefty. Wearing a suit that doesn’t fit him right. Tight in the big areas, and loose in the small areas. No suit fits him right, I’m guessing. He may be younger than he looks, which is about 60. Look at them baggy-assed eyes. He still just can’t get over how sad the world’s turned out to be.
The woman makes the introductions.
“Natalie, I am Detective Cheryl Alvarez and this is Detective Grant Porter.”
“He’s my cousin,” I say. “His name is Judson Powell. He’s got problems….”
Judson battles depression, the family curse. He’s also been through some shit that would make anybody depressed. Broken life. Broken man.
They sit, play around with some folders. Let me know that we’re on camera and this is being recorded. Like, duh! I would never have suspected.
Porter asks: “Did your cousin — Judson David Powell — ever talk about robbing a bank?”
“I love Judson. We’re close. I fixed him up with his ex-wife, but we’re still close. But no, he never talked to me about committing armed robbery.”
“He knew you worked there.”
I sit back.
“Detectives, I got nothing to hide. This is about the time that somebody who has something to hide asks for a lawyer, right?”
“And we thank you very much for your cooperation, Natalie,” says Alvarez.
She tries to be smiley sweetness, but the cold eyes are a tell.
I say: “I also know that detectives will pretend to be so kind, so understanding. I’ll bet you’re going to ask if we can be besties.”
Alvarez is about to unload, but Porter lays his big paw on her forearm.
He asks: “Did the suspect, Judson David Powell — who has the same last name as you, Natalie — know that you worked at that branch of Townright Savings and Loan?”
“He might have. My whole family knows I’m a teller.” I add quickly: “But not for long.” Teller is temporary. I didn’t go to college nights to be a teller.
Porter asks: “How is it that Judson comes in to rob a bank where you work? I’m warning you, Natalie, you need to be straight with me or you will in fact need a lawyer. A team of lawyers.”
“Detective Porter, he may have known. I never told Judson in so many words exactly where I work. What bank. What branch.”
“You have a close family.”
“Extended families living on the same block. You, in fact. live with your parents, your husband, and your two children about five houses down from where the suspect lives with his parents for the last” he looks at his notes “seven months or so.”
I have to laugh. “Damn,” I say, “you people work fast. Especially when people of color are involved.”
My new best friend, Detective Alvarez, takes offense.
“Don’t pull that bullshit with me, Natalie. I’m half black, half Latino.”
“And all blue.”
And I do. Now’s not the best time to antagonize my hosts.
“Look,” I say. “Didn’t ask for a lawyer. I want to cooperate.” I can’t resist adding: “Sorry if I’m pointing out some hard truths to ya’ll.” Plantation accent.
Alvarez flips open a folder, jots with a balled fist.
“I see Judson all the time,” I say. “We do have a close family. My father and his father, they’re brothers. Tight. Co-own a towing business.”
The good detectives and I go around for a bit. I tell them that I talk about the bank sometimes to my family, about the characters I work with.
“Now, I love Mickey Tulsa,” I say. “He’s salt of the earth. Full of funny stories. One of those guys the bank needs but Mickey doesn’t sing from the bank’s hymnal. Feel me? Just can’t do it. Once when corporate kept laying down bullshit about our mission statement and our core values, Mickey says, ‘I didn’t join a damn cult.’ He says stuff like that. Stuff everybody’s thinking but he’ll say it out loud. Love the Mickster.”
Porter and Alvarez just sit. Hoping the suspect (Am I a suspect? I guess I am.) will get uncomfortable with the silence and start babbling.
I say: “Is there anything else, detectives?”
“Did you know he was going to rob the bank,” Alvarez asks.
I say, “He didn’t rob a bank.”
She leans back, drums her fingers on the chair’s arms. Just then another cop pokes in, points to Alvarez, jerks his head. She’s needed elsewhere.
“Let the record show that Detective Cheryl Alvarez is leaving the room,” Porter says. “The interrogation continues.”
“Interrogation? Is that what this is? You didn’t tell me I’m being interrogated. You said a little chat.”
“It’s just a formality, Natalie.”
“Did you in any way help Judson David Powell try to rob a bank?” Porter asks.
“No. Mickey Tulsa was one of yours, right?”
“Mickey’s a former police officer, yes,” says Porter. “A bit before my time.”
“Ask Mickey if he thinks I could do something like that.”
“Natalie, I’ve learned that in the right circumstances everybody’s capable of something that they’d be ashamed to tell in confession. Mickey Tulsa might have shared that little bit of wisdom with me many years ago on my first day on the force.”
“I’m AME, not Catholic. Mickey’s what? Seventy? Seventy-two?” Although he still exercises, which came in handy today, I guess.
“Some guys need to be doing something or it’s retire to expire.”
“Not every day. But on a lot of days he hauls his ass to the other side of the barricade — hidden from the lobby — and stretches out on the big sofa there and snoozes.”
“He lies down?”
“No. He’s sitting, sort of. But his head lolls against the top of the couch and he’s out.”
“The manager allows this?”
“Manager looks the other way. And he keeps customers clear of that area. When he does need that space on some days, he’ll go and kick Mickey’s shoes and Mickey’s awake. Like that. Wide awake. I never see anybody go from full sleep to full awake that fast. Plus, Mickey sleeps with one eye open. Literally. Just a slit, but you can see the eyeball.”
At this, the sad-faced Porter smiles.
“I think I remember,” he says.
“Every day. When he naps, it’s for twenty minutes. From about twenty to three to three.”
“That’s all he needs.”
“Yeah, I think it’s funny,” I say. “And I’ve joked about it at family parties and such. So, I’m thinking that that might be the way Judson gets the idea.”
“I’ll take a lie detector test, Detective Porter.”
It goes on like that for a while and then they let me go. On my way out, I think about asking to see Judson, then nix that idea quick. That would be pushing it.
And I do take a lie detector test, too. I pay for it: $523.34.
There’s a cottage industry for those who want to use lie detectors. Customers include spouses who want ammo for a divorce, and employers who need to know if some employee steals money, or sells secrets. I went to this office in a strip mall. They wrap wires around you and put a blood pressure cuff on your upper arm. About twenty questions, and the first bunch are basically a warmup to check if the machine is working.
Is your name Natalie Powell?
Do you work as a teller at Townright Savings and Loan?
Are you 23 years old?
Do you have two children?
Do you reside in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania?
Gradually we get into the family and me and Judson and our friendship. Then come the money questions.
Did you help your cousin, Judson David Powell, in his attempt to rob Townright Savings and Loan?
Did you know that your cousin, Judson David Powell, planned to rob Townright Savings and Loan?
Did you conspire with your cousin, Judson David Powell, in attempting to break any law?
Like I say, over five Benjamins and it turns out that I didn’t have to do it because the investigators pretty soon decided that I had nothing to do with what Judson did. Still, I hand deliver the polygraph results to Detective Alvarez.
“Do you have a receipt?” she asks “You shouldn’t have to pay for this.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t.”
“I’ll try to reimburse you.”
“I’ll do my best to try and get the department to reimburse you.”
So, I text her the receipt when I’m at the bus stop.
“I am not holding my breath,” I write. As soon as I hit send I think “Damn!” I just can’t help myself sometimes.
Turns out the bank pays for it. The bank’s been great about all of this. Paying for any counseling people may need. Giving out hardship bonuses to all the employees at the branch, not just the ones who were there when it happened. Paying me for any time missed because I’m talking to the detectives. (There was another meeting.) Or when I had to take that week and half off to go to Judson’s trial. He gets five years.
Why did he do it?
I never asked because I knew. He lost his job. Then he lost his marriage and had to move back in with his parents. He lost visitation rights. He drinks. He smokes. He screws up his back horribly doing work under the table at a car shop. He takes opioids for the pain. Medicaid takes him off opioids after a bit but the pain’s still there. So, he buys street heroin, and he steals money from people to do it. His parents are losing their minds over this. They know a place that promises to dry you out for $5,000 a week. It’s a 30-day deal. But where the hell is Judson going to get that kind of money?
Of course, now that’s not an issue.
Every time I visit Judson in prison he asks me to pray with him. He’s on the other side of the clear divider separating civilians from inmates. No touching. He’s clean by now. They used methadone, and then weaned him off that. He lost weight. The prison orange hangs loose. His once animated face — with its smiles and tics, a face that brought a special laughter and singing and insight into the world — has settled into neutral. My cousin walks the fine line between spiritual transcendence and nihilism. Between “all things must pass” and “nothing really matters.”
I close my eyes as Judson prays.
“God save me from my sinful inclinations. Save me from hatred. Save me from ingratitude. Save me from resentments. Save me from despair. Bless this prisoner and the people he loves. Like Cousin Natalie, here. When I am powerless, it is then that I am strong. Lord, Thy will, not mine. Amen.”
I raise my bowed head and see tears in Judson’s eyes. First time since we were kids. Yes, I’m crying, too. Sure. First time since we were kids. I swipe at the tears but they keep coming. This is my third visit since he’s been in. Usually we talk about his kids and parents and stuff going on in the neighborhood. Who got laid off. Who got a job. Who got married. Who got divorced. Who’s gang-banging. Who joined the military.
“The beat goes on, Judson,” I say.
Usually he’d simply nod at this, acknowledge the life he no longer lives. He’s stopped counting the days. That would drive him crazy. This time, though, he tilts his head, narrows his eyes.
“Did you know, Natalie?” Judson asks.
He never asked before. I told him about the lie detector and thought that that answered the question so that he’d never have to ask. But here he is asking anyway.
Suddenly — right here, right now — the correct answer comes to me: “I don’t know.” I don’t care what the polygraph test says. I told stories about the characters I worked with, including Mickey Tulsa. About how he naps everyday at twenty to three.
At family parties, people would be roaring with laughter, including Judson.
“Remember, this is our security guard,” I’d say. “He’s napping. Somebody could just waltz in there and open the vault and say ‘hello!’”
And unlike the other stories I tell about other characters at work, I tell this one on three different occasions. Embellishing. Spicing it up with a few choice details. Like how our cameras are old and need to be replaced.
I told them after Judson had been laid off and his marriage tanked. I told them after he became hooked on opioids. I told them when I knew that he desperately needed money. I told that somebody could probably rob our bank with a toy gun and get away with it. I actually said that.
Judson repeats: “Did. You. Know.”
I look both ways like I’m about to cross Roosevelt Boulevard against the light and glance at the guards and the cameras.
He holds up his hands.
“I get it,” he says. “I do.”
“Do you? Because I don’t.”
“Maybe you plant the seed on purpose, and maybe you don’t.”
“I’ll visit you every week, Judson.”
“Girl, you crazy? Takes you three buses.”
“Gives me plenty of time to read.”
“And the kids?”
“Bradley. My parents.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
“OK. Judson, I will try my best to get here every week.”
“Amen and God bless you.”
It’s raining by the time I get to the bus stop shelter. It’s a cold rain, too. A hard rain. Wind sometimes kicks up and makes it go sideways so there’s really no place for me to get away from it. Three buses; an hour and a half trek ahead of me.
I think: “You did not tell him to go rob a bank.”
I shiver. Just a bit colder and this would be snow.
I think: “I had nothing to do with it. The lie detector.”
But the thought, the possibility, won’t let me be.
Sometimes the lies we tell ourselves are the lies we believe the most.