In this excerpt from Chapter 3, author Max Merriwell is having breakfast with Susan, a fan of his writing. Recently divorced, Susan is unsure of herself and trying to find her way. Max offers some useful advice.
“Most people walk around as if they were half asleep,” Max said. “They don’t notice half of what’s going on around them. Cops and writers pay attention to things that other people don’t. I watch people and make up lies. Cops watch people and figure out when they’re lying. I have the easier job, I think.”
She sipped her coffee and thought perhaps she had underestimated Max. Yes, he was full of himself. But he was also rather sharp about noticing what was going on around him.
When she looked up from her coffee, she caught him studying her face. “You know, I have a suggestion for you,” he said.
He was watching her carefully. “I think you need to learn to lie.”
“I beg your pardon?” She stared at him, taken aback.
“I think you need to learn to lie. You’re really much too honest.”
“I didn’t think a person could be too honest,” she said.
“Oh, I disagree. Take that conversation with Alberta. She was asking personal questions to find out who you were so that she could figure out how to treat you. That was what dinner was all about, you know. Sizing people up and jockeying for position.”
“Well…” Susan was reluctant to accept this assessment. She would like to have a better opinion of her fellow passengers than that. “That seems rather harsh. I’m sure she was trying to get to know me…”
Max interrupted. “Of course. She wanted to get to know you so she’d know where you fit into the scheme of things. You’d been very quiet and she wanted to know how to treat you. Should she patronize you, bully you, or treat you with respect? She knows you’re a librarian and you’re not currently married, so I think she’s inclined to patronize you at this point, but you could change that.”
Susan frowned, startled again. “You said I’m not currently married. What makes you think I was ever married?”
He smiled again, looking rather pleased with himself. “I told you, Susan. I watch people. When you told Alberta that you weren’t married, you touched your left hand, as if feeling for a wedding ring that wasn’t there. When I mentioned your marital status just now, you did it again. I would guess that you used to wear a ring, but gave it up quite recently.”
Susan looked down at her hands and caught herself in the act of feeling for her ring — her right hand was on her left, touching the ring finger. She carefully set her hands on the table on either side of water glass.
“Don’t worry about it,” Max said. “Most people wouldn’t notice. It’s a matter of careful observation.”
She nodded, looking up from her hands. “So you figure Alberta is going to patronize me because I’m a divorced librarian. Well, if she thinks being a librarian is unimportant, I don’t see how….”
“Where are you a librarian? Wait — don’t tell me!” He held up his hand. “This is an opportunity to reinvent yourself. You can be any number of different people, depending on how you answer.” He leaned closer. “Your answer determines your status. If you are a librarian at Stanford University, that’s one thing. Or if you manage the private law library for a wealthy attorney. Or perhaps….” He let his voice drop. “Perhaps you run the library for a government security agency — not the CIA, something much more secret. You can’t really talk about your work — that’s always useful.”
She smiled, realizing the advantages of his line of thinking. “If I can’t talk about it, then I don’t have to lie,” she said.
“That’s true. But it’s important to realize that the way that you refuse to talk about it will be very different than if you were — oh, say — out of work. Keep in mind — it’s not that you won’t talk about it. You can’t talk about it. So you quickly redirect the conversation, and people will know you are not saying all you can. That creates a hint of mystery, a bit of intrigue.”
She was smiling now. “You talk as if my life were a story.”
“It is, isn’t it?” he said. “It’s your story. You’re making it up as you go along. So tell me: where do you work?”
She pursed her lips, suppressing a grin, and tried to look serious. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.” She laughed. “Besides, why would anyone want to talk about work on such a beautiful day?”