Back in 1997, my mother and I sold a weight-loss product called Calorad at a flea market in Union City, Tennessee. Calorad was a milky liquid that rolled down the throat like snot. In order to “Lose Weight While You Sleep,” one simply took a teaspoon or two before bedtime.
We were no strangers to the weight-loss product game. For years, my mother had sold herbal supplements which promised energy, vitality, and weight loss from companies whose business models resembled pyramid sales programs, like Tupperware. My mother also sold Tupperware, and she sold so much that while attending the annual convention in Utah, the company awarded her a station wagon.
Susan Jones was that good.
I had driven the hour from my college to help her manage her booth in Union City. This was the time in my life when my mother and I were on the best terms. After a screaming and weeping adolescence, we discovered that once I moved out of the house, we could develop a fondness for each other that was not possible while we were living under the same roof. This was also the point when my lifetime of training as her flea market assistant had finally paid off. I knew how to talk to customers. I knew how she liked to run her booth and our business. I knew how to negotiate a deal and upsell.
I grew up at flea markets. Murray, Jackson, McKenzie, Nashville, Memphis, a rodeo fair in Puryear or Paris, a craft show in Cape Girardeau: every weekend we hooked the trailer to her Ford Bronco and took to the road. Sometimes we left in the middle of the night and stopped at the Subway for sandwiches, smearing sauce all over our faces; we didn’t care, because it was dark. She would tell me stories about when she was young, or gossip about other people. As we crept past the small town of the woman with whom my father had had the affair, my mother asked if I felt like slashing tires, then quickly added, “No. That would be too far.”
At outdoor shows, we would build a large tent with pipe and tarps. When it rained, we scooted the tables under the tent to keep it dry, and if it poured, we threw everything into the trailer like we were fleeing the scene of a crime. We were often hopeful at indoor shows, only to be disappointed by the disgusting bathrooms or lack of air conditioning.
Fred’s Friendly Flea Market in Union City was one of the nicer, cleaner, and more consistent of the flea markets. It opened the second weekend of every month in what used to be a Wal-Mart. At that time, my mother was transitioning out of supplements and women’s glitter-adorned clothing and into junk jewelry and Beanie Babies. The Beanie Baby market was profitable enough to keep our family afloat for years. Calorad was the last supplement she sold.
Flea markets usually smell like funnel cakes, but the Union City flea market smelled like cinnamon pecans. The banners which hung overhead read “Silver jewelry cleaned here,” “Lee Middleton Dolls,” or “Custom Framing.” I could never escape the feeling of being at WalMart, despite the fact that the registers had been removed and Customer Service had been converted into a concession stand serving cheap burgers and flat soda. I think the area we rented had once been the jewelry department because it was the only part of the store which had carpet.
I liked to make the rounds before I opened the booth, walking the perimeter of the building and down the aisles. The concert T-shirt guy might have new Metallica shirts or the handmade soap woman might have new scents. A woman who sold baked goods gave me the secret recipe for her Ambrosia cookies, which I have only shared with one other person. Vendors came and went regularly. The joy of arriving was seeing what was new, which vendors came back, and which vendors were missing. During our time there, we made many friends. When my mother died years later, many of them drove for several hours to our small town of Bells, Tennessee, to pay tribute to the woman who they all agreed could sell “damn near anything.”
One weekend at the flea market, I was finishing a sale with a customer when my mother called me over. She was talking to a woman who was holding the slim white bottle of Calorad. “Tell this lady how much weight you’ve lost since you started college?”
“I went down two jeans sizes.” I had, in fact, lost weight since I had gone to college, but mainly because I was walking all over my campus, smoking a pack a day, and no longer living next door to my grandmother, who expressed her love by sharing Little Debbie Swiss Cake Rolls with me.
The woman scanned me from head to toe. “Really?” She handed my mother $20 and walked off with the Calorad. After she had walked away, I whispered, “You know I have never once drank that Calorad mess.”
“I didn’t tell her that you did. I only told her you’d lost weight. That’s not lying.”
This was the distinction that our family’s ethics hinged upon. My mother never lied to the woman. She allowed the woman to make her own associations. Our family code was very clear about this: a lie of omission is not a lie. A secret is not a lie. If you were confronted with a direct question, you were obligated to tell the truth. Sometimes this did not require the whole truth. The quest for answers depended upon asking the right question. My family also operated on the code of knowing the difference between lying and bullshitting: lying is a malicious falsehood with the intent to deceive. Bullshitting is pulling someone along in order to tell a story or a joke. Fish tales, April Fools’ jokes, and basically anything that fell out of my Uncle Scott’s mouth was bullshit.
Everyone lies. That doesn’t necessarily make a person a liar. White lies, bullshit, fish stories, putting people on: these are the habits of humans saying what we need to in order to get what we want. But when does a person make the transition from having told a lie and to being a liar? When I was a child, neither I nor my siblings could call another person a liar. Our mother instructed us to amend those accusations and claim a person was “telling stories.” We were to criticize the actions instead of maligning the person. To be known as a liar would taint a person forever.
Even when you realize that a person has made that transition from “a person who has lied” to “a person who is a liar,” it still never feels like you are the person they are lying to. You are special. You are the exception. Lies are for other people, people who demanded explanations, or people who don’t deserve the truth. Once you realize that you are not special, a bitterness envelops the relationship. It challenges you to decide: cut ties with that person forever or accept that they will always lie. Ask yourself: can you live with a liar?
My best friend in undergrad was a liar. She was a non-traditional student who lived twenty miles away from campus and studied early elementary education. She had a live-in boyfriend and three children. A year into our friendship, she created a fake persona named Savannah. I was only slightly surprised when she did this. She was “taking a semester off,” which transitioned into not coming back at all. She didn’t have job or a car. She smoked weed and was often bored. In her boredom, she discovered an advertisement in the back of Cosmopolitan for a Party Line which women could call for free. She called and became Savannah.
Party Lines were these phone numbers that people could call to meet new people—the pre-Internet version of a chat room. The beauty of using them was that the person you were speaking with had to believe what you told them because they had no evidence to contradict it. People entered this world with both the assumption that the person they spoke with was who they claimed to be, and the skepticism that perhaps they were not. Some might call this lying. My family would qualify this as bullshitting. When I asked “Savannah” how she kept up with all the bullshit she was feeding these men, she said, “I write it all down in a notebook.” She lifted the couch cushion and presented to me a spiral notebook adorned with her handwriting–black and blue cursive curls forming her new name: Savannah, Savannah, Savannah.
“Why did you pick that name?”
“I thought it sounded romantic.”
“It does. It sounds like something from a romance novel.” That made her smile, like I understood her intent. I asked her if she was worried that her boyfriend would find the notebook.
“Not really. He never sits on the couch.”
But her boyfriend did find the notebook—after she disappeared for two days. She snuck out of town to meet one of the guys from the Party Line. She had been chatting with this stranger every night after her boyfriend went to bed. I received a phone call from her on a Saturday afternoon from that guy’s house in Missouri, in some little town whose name I can’t recall. She didn’t explain why she ran off. She didn’t rationalize it by telling me she was unhappy with her boyfriend. She didn’t even try to tell me this guy was her new man. The guy had invited her to stay with him for the weekend. She wanted to go. So she went. He picked her up at a Marathon gas station walking distance from her house. She asked me not to tell her boyfriend where she was if he phoned looking for her. When her boyfriend called me, I told him my truth: “I haven’t seen her.”
When Savannah returned, she promised her boyfriend that she would not do anything like that ever again, and he forgave her, but she didn’t stop reinventing herself, even after they married. They purchased a computer and she swiftly started a chatroom relationship. She disappeared, stayed gone for a few days, then returned.
At first, when Savannah would disappear, it didn’t bother me. She had invited me in on her secrets. This made me feel special. I was chosen—deemed trustworthy—for the information. After a while, I developed the suspicion that she was lying to me, too. She’d tell me she had bought me a gift, which would have mysteriously disappeared before she could give it to me. All her stories grew bigger and more outlandish—or perhaps they always had been and I had gone along with them. Had she been bullshitting me or lying to me? Eventually, I assumed that everything she said was false.
After they married, I had a hard time watching Savannah lie to her husband. I had known them both for years. He had also become my friend. And he was being lied to. This was no longer bullshitting. They married. They had kids. She was hurting people. The situation had become malicious. I was also too naive to realize that her marriage might have been the result of a negotiation: I’ll take you back if you marry me. I can’t be sure. I asked her repeatedly if she wanted to be married, and she would always answer, “I love him.” But marriage is not magic, and the fact that she stood in a church in a white dress and took vows could not stop her constant need for reinvention. I encouraged her to write, to channel all that imagination onto the page, but she had no interest in only imagining new identities. She wanted to live them.
After a few months, our friendship fell apart. The summer after she married, I stopped by to see her twice, and both times she shooed me away. She also stopped returning my calls. I’d like to say I had made a moral stand and stopped allowing myself to be lied to, but that was not the case. She had dumped me. One afternoon, I was pumping gas when I realized a man was walking in my direction. He had climbed out of a Chevy pick-up, which I recognized belonged to Savannah’s husband. I couldn’t be certain he saw me. I hoped he might walk into the gas station, pay for his gas and drive away. But he didn’t. He approached my white Thunderbird and said, “Hey, girl.”
He was a nice guy. That was the worst part. He was a nice guy who worked his job and loved his kids. He liked dirt bikes and kept his truck clean. On my birthday, he had driven my friend and me across the river into Illinois, to one of the bars next to the riverboat casino. At the end of the night, while I sat in the street and heartily vomited, he held back my hair and waved to passing strangers. “It’s her 21st birthday!”
At the gas station he told me, “It would be real nice if you came around again. You were a good influence.” I didn’t ask what was going on or why Savannah needed a good influence. Instead, I lied. “Sure. I’ll stop by one afternoon after work.” But I never went back to their house.
Sometimes I wonder why I was so comfortable being such close friends with someone who habitually lied. Maybe the reason it never bothered me was because I was used to people lying to me.
While I was in college, my credit plummeted. I was not necessarily a careless spender—I avoided the booths on my campus which offered a free T-shirt in exchange for my social security number and a $500 credit limit. No. The reason my credit could never rebound was because my mother was in possession of it. For most of my life, my mother carried a credit card with my name on it instead of hers. She had tucked the card in the back of her wallet with a baby picture of my brother and, sometimes, a carefully folded $100 bill.
“Why does this have my name on it?” I asked once when I was a kid. I had searched through her purse, something I did when she drove me to Brownies or doctor’s appointments.
“I’m using it.”
“Can I use it?”
“When you get older.” By the time I was “older,” that card was gone and another with my name on it had taken its place. I never got to use it.
My mother believed in credit because credit is necessary to run a small business. In addition to the flea markets, my grandmother and mother ran our small town’s flower shop. While this may sound like a job from a Nancy Myers rom-com featuring an unrealistically wealthy woman who likes to surround herself with pretty things all day long, that is not reality. Florists deal primarily with funeral arrangements. When someone dies, their friends and family begin phoning for flowers as soon as the funeral home announces visitation times. When orders begin to pour in, a florist can’t turn away customers because the cooler is as empty as the cash box. Credit is what gets the wholesale house to deliver a truckload of newspaper-wrapped roses, carnations covered in plastic, and boxes of greenery in time to arrange and deliver a casket piece to a five p.m. visitation.
As credit maintains a business, it also maintained our family. A family-owned business is a business which supports a family. Our family included my grandparents, my uncle, my aunt, my parents, my brother, my sister, and me. Later, the family grew. My uncle married and had a child. When his wife left, the child was primarily and unofficially in our care (and I include myself in that grouping because I was fourteen when it happened, and spent most of my afternoons and summer breaks carrying the child around on my hip). My brother married, and, for a little while, his wife also worked for the business. Their two boys were raised in the flower shop in lieu of day care. The business employed individuals in the community as extra hands for major holidays like Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, and the funerals for the most popular people in town. Most of the men in the family worked for corporations. The town’s frozen vegetable plant employed nearly every family member except for my father, who drove a big rig truck for the Tennessee Farmers’ Co-op. These corporate jobs ensured that the family had insurance. However, if anyone needed shoes, toys, funds for school functions, prescription medication, vehicles, or cell phones, those things were purchased through the family business.
My first credit card, the first one I was allowed to use, arrived in the mail when I was sixteen years old, and my mother instructed me that it was only supposed to be used for emergencies. She allowed me to open my own checking account when I was ten years old. I worked afternoons and weekends in the flower shop, whenever my mother did not haul me off to the flea markets. I earned my own money, which meant I could spend it as I wished. By the time I left for college, I had credit cards for Target, the Limited, JC Penney, and other stores. I used the big card for books and school trips and made regular payments.
One summer break in college, I opened a bill which had been delivered to my mother’s house for a credit card I didn’t possess. It was overdue and showed a culmination of service fees. I called the credit card company while I drove to my summer job. In lieu of working for the family business, I had taken a higher paying gig loading rubber balls into a machine which then injected plastic into molds to form golf balls. As I pulled into the fenced off parking lot, I explained to a customer service rep that I had never signed up for a card with them. After a frustrating, “No I didn’t/Our records show you did” argument, I realized that perhaps this customer service representative was right. Maybe someone had signed up for that card, but it was not me. I immediately phoned my mother. “Did you sign up for a credit card in my name?”
“What credit card?”
“The Visa card.”
“What Visa card?”
She was very good at this. An argument could go on for a good ten minutes with no information actually exchanged. It’s quite brilliant when I look back on it: she was acclimating herself to the confrontation, learning all the information I had in my arsenal while simultaneously admitting nothing.
“Why would you think I had anything to do with it?”
“Because you take out cards in other people’s names all the time, Mama!”
“How could you accuse me of that? Did you ever think that maybe they made a mistake?”
She speculated how it was Visa’s fault or a computer error. She blamed Y2K. She made lots of guesses, but never confirmed nor denied that she had opened this account in my name. She was turning words around on me the same way she did to others: repeating statements back as questions, evading, telling sideways truths, speculating on other scenarios. Not lying. Not specifically lying.
“Well, this is it. No more cards in my name. Understand?”
She said, “Fine.” And perhaps she processed and rationalized that response as, “I never said I wouldn’t. I only said I understood.” She continued to open cards in my name.
We never talked about the cards when we were together. We were always too busy. From the second I was in her vicinity, she gave me assignments and projects to keep me occupied. She instructed me to write sympathy cards for call-in orders, to cut flowers to put into water, to fetch things in the house for her, to deliver flower arrangements around town. Distract and misdirect.
This person who had stolen my credit was also the same person who had driven me to the doctor twice a week for allergy shots, the person who had sat with me at a dinner for local university-accepted students, the person who had so often woken me in the summer to announce that we would be spending the day in Memphis, Nashville, or Cape Girardeau, the person who would later hold my hand and tell me to stop whining while I pushed a ten-pound baby out of me, the person who had once told me, “You aren’t afraid of anything. And that terrifies me.” I had never asked who was paying for that trip, that dinner, that experience. By the time I realized the full extent of the debt charged in my name, I lived a state away.
I was Susan Jones’ daughter. Even though my parents never divorced and our last name was Williams, this was how the people in my hometown saw me. My mother, after she married my father at the age of seventeen on prom night—while three months pregnant with my brother— kept her maiden name as her middle name. She never dropped the Jones. We lived on my grandfather’s land. He had signed it over for the purpose of parking a trailer, under the condition that it remain in my mother’s name:my grandfather, King Skeptic, could not abide his land being under the control of any son-in-law. I grew up next door to my grandparents knowing my needs would be met. If we did not have milk in our trailer, I only had to skip next door. If my brother was hogging the bathroom, I could run across the yard to my grandparents’ house.
I was a Jones as much as I was a Williams. As I got older, people would note the similarities between my mother and me. I was tall like her, I sounded like her, and comparing both of our senior portraits side by side, we had the same hairstyle. And when I wasn’t being compared to her by friends and family, I would be associated with my father. My tendency to be alone, to be dreamy, to be idle: these were all attributed to his influence and genetics. I was categorized by their traits, which irritated me because I always felt so separated from them all. I wanted to be myself without criticism or comment. I wanted to know who I was apart from them.
I am often too honest, too direct. I fail at the ordinary social protocol of gushing over things I hate, babies who are not cute, and movies that I think are stupid. Once, in the middle of a rant about how the novel Twilight is not romantic, but rather a good example of a controlling and abusive relationship, I realized that my barista did not need my opinion on the book she was reading. She needed me to nod while she talked about this thing she loved. I needed to learn how to lie and say, “No. I never read it.”
Other times, when I tell a story at a party and add the flourish, the hyperbole, the joke that makes the story less ordinary, party-goers will sometimes ask, “Is that true?”
And I wonder if I have crossed that line from bullshitter to liar, if I’ve taken the story too far and have pulled these new friends into some web where they don’t know if they can trust me.
“Of course, it is not true. I’m bullshitting you.”
I learned to dodge debt collectors. If they asked for Brandi Williams, I would say, “That person does not live here.” After all, I had changed my name to Brandi Bradley after I married. One day a bill collector caught me in a weak moment, and I found myself discussing the debt with one of their agents, a very aggressive man who threatened prison time if I did not agree to the debt settlement he offered.
“I told you, I never made those charges.”
“If your debt was stolen, then you have to report that.”
“What if you know who stole it?”
“You know your debt was stolen and you know who stole it?”
“I didn’t say that. I said, ‘What if I know who stole it?’” I employed some of my mother’s tactics.
“Then you are obligated to report it.”
“How do you call the cops on your mom, man? Can you do that?”
He didn’t have an answer for that. When I called my mother to tell her about the experience, she responded, “They don’t arrest people for not paying their credit cards. It is an unstable loan, and all they can do is settle and sell the debt. They were never going to arrest you.”
I still can’t finance anything in my own name without paying the highest rates. Any loans or credit cards must be run through my husband’s accounts. Together we have one credit card, but he is the primary user. Four years ago, I purchased an SUV with a cashier’s check. My husband encourages me to check my credit score, but I don’t.
When my mother died, the family sifted through all the credit cards with our names on them. Me, my sister, and my cousin who my mother helped raise: we all sat around my mother’s living room, holding credit cards with variations of our names embossed into the plastic. When I called to make sure the accounts had been closed, I was told that the cards had been approved with $500 limits, maxed out and never paid. They’d been sold to debt collectors since then.
Before my mother died, each time I received another notice about another credit card for which I never applied, it felt like a betrayal. I would phone my mother. I would yell. She would deny knowing what I was talking about. I didn’t care about the money, but each credit card forced me to face the reality that no matter how angry I was with my mother, she would not change her behavior. My anger didn’t bother her enough to stop. The problem was not the money, but the fact that I was not special.
If my mother were still alive, I don’t believe she would be ashamed of her decisions. She would say, “I did what I had to do.” Her spending was for us: all of us. My sister took music lessons, my brother received help purchasing a service truck to start his own business, and I went to college— even when my scholarships fell through. My father had guitars, my grandmother had the best medical care, my grandfather had a golf cart, my cousin and nephews had a trampoline. On the other hand, my mother would wear shoes and clothes until they were full of holes. She drove the same 1994 Ford Bronco until she died in 2010.
I was not surprised when we found the credit cards in her safe after she died. For months after, I kept them in the zip pocket of my purse, a collection of expired cards wrapped together with a rubber band. On my lunch breaks, I called the companies to let them know, “The person who opened these accounts has died.” And the companies never cared. The debt had been sold to a collection agent so long ago; they had no more stake in that game. They didn’t care that my mother had taken the cards out in my name. It wasn’t even an interesting story to them. As my mother had said, it was an unstable loan. They took the risk, and their only recourse was to sell the loan to a debt collector. In my conversations with debt collectors, the person on the phone often couldn’t even tell me what company originally owned the debt. Instead, they read me a list of agencies that had shuffled the debt from one to the next like a reverse game of Who’s Got the Button. I was a name and a phone number and a potential source of collection to them. Over the phone, they told me they would happily reduce the debt by twenty percent if I paid them that day. All I needed was to read to them the number from a credit card.
I still get calls asking for Brandi Williams, Susan Jones, Brandi Jones, Susan Williams, and in the moments when I’m caught on the phone with the collector, I always say, “I’m sorry. I don’t know who that is.”