I became a private investigator because of my face. It’s an ordinary-looking face, but if I ask “How are you?” sometimes people start crying. “I’m getting a divorce,” they say. “He ended our marriage by text.” Or “I was just diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease.” Or a man grips a packet of peas in the frozen food aisle and asks, “How do you cook these? My wife died last month.”
Or an immaculately dressed woman suddenly tells me, “I hate my job so much I want to kill myself. I’ve been saving up Ambiens.”
Then we sit on a concrete curb, or stand in line at a train station, or clutch clear plastic cups at a party as the near-stranger in front of me dabs away mascara with a cocktail napkin and dumps out her mind like it’s her purse, like I’m the one who can sift through the dust and used tissues to find what she’s looking for.
Demographics don’t seem to matter. Young, old, women, men, nonbinary, gay, straight, rich, poor, East, West—everyone tells me things. A woman with twenty-six grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren whispered to me at her 101st birthday party that she wished she never had kids, that she had wasted her life on all these people. After I volunteered at an elementary school, a six-year-old followed me all the way to the bathroom to tell me in Spanish that her daddy’s not going to come home anymore.
Even as a kid, I was a storage locker for people’s secrets. Grown-ups confessed their affairs, lost fetuses, traumas. When I was seven, my maternal grandmother told me her husband chased her with a knife. One of my elementary school teachers told me he was leaving his wife because she hoarded pizza boxes and dead bugs. When I was fourteen, my mother’s friend yanked me aside and said, “I just want to say your mother is a bitch. You know she’s a bitch, right?” When I was seventeen, X, my abuser, blurted that he had denied a promotion to a friend at work because he was Black. This wasn’t intimacy; we hated each other.
I thought that was just how other people were, confessing things all the time, that everyone experienced these constant revelations from both kin and strangers. Except people would always say, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” or “I’ve never told this to anyone before.” Nobody told my older sister or younger brother these things, even though we looked similar. So it must be me, something I was doing, right or wrong or neither. Something in my face bore the shape of a key, or a steel table on which to lay something heavy.
“Where do I know you from?” strangers ask brightly. One surreal morning on a springtime park bench, three strangers in a row insisted they knew me as each sat down in turn. “Do you work at the library? Do you know Pat? Do you eat at Dot’s?” I said no, I just have a familiar face, this happens to me all the time. One woman said, “With that face, you must have a tough time even going outside without people bugging you.”
Does a familiar face imply a forgettable one? One ex-boyfriend forgot my name. “This is, um,” he said, actually snapping his fingers, trying to introduce me to his new girlfriend. Another ex-boyfriend remembered my name, but forgot we had been together for a year. “What’s it like to date you, I wonder,” he flirted over the phone until I reminded him we did date not long ago, and he had sorta-kinda proposed to me amid a wash of emotion he felt after a screening of Moulin Rouge. But how could I get mad at him? Nobody remembers a mirror.
When I was thirteen, my family moved to Japan for four years. The first year, nobody seemed to understand anything I said. “No, no,” they said, waving their hands in front of their faces. “No speak English.” “But I’m speaking in Japanese,” I said in Japanese and they stared blankly at my casual body, my oddness.
At some point, without realizing it, my gestures morphed from American to Japanese ones. I covered my teeth when I smiled, nodded in short bows, kept my fingers pressed tightly together, pinned my elbows to my sides. My Japanese hadn’t improved much, but people now called me fluent, pera pera. They would talk and talk and talk to me, way beyond my capacity to comprehend the language. They insisted I was half-Japanese, “Hafu-desu!” My mimicry was getting me adopted.
Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer, even if you have to become just like them. As a child, whenever I had to take car trips with X, it was safer to sit directly behind him because he couldn’t hit me without having to pull over and haul me out. Sitting there, I felt like his lesser shadow. I couldn’t read a book because it made me carsick, so I spent the time memorizing the back of the head I hated most. If the car came to a sudden stop, I pitched forward until I could smell the dead-skin stench of his hair, terrified I might somehow merge right into his body.
Imitation isn’t flattery—it’s protection. There’s a class of animals called “mimics” who pretend to be other kinds of animals, to avoid becoming the delicious prey they indeed are. The powdery gray owl butterfly bears a convincing owl-eye spot on each wing, guarding it from bird attack. The harmless milk snake imitates venomous copperheads and coral snakes, with bright red-orange bands to warn off predators. Their lies are their hides. Tear a mimic free from her disguise and you’ll find only inner flesh, viscera, a heart emptying its last blood into the dirt. She will die, and be eaten. Unless she learns how to rip off your disguise first.
In the fall of 2002, I was living in the Front Range foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, in a small city that hosted a university and a swarm of tech startups. I met an attorney in a bookstore there because we were both reaching for the same Paul Auster novel. We withdrew, laughed, chatted briefly about the author and books, and then he started telling me about his life. He wasn’t complaining, just reporting. “I’m a partner in the kind of law firm I’ve always dreamed of. But I’m beginning to hate it.”
The man looked like a lawyer. He was about twenty years older than me, my height, in a cornflower-blue button-down shirt that matched his eyes so exactly he must have bought it for that purpose. But his hunched shoulders betrayed misery, and his arms flapped at his sides like he had no use for them anymore but didn’t know how to shed them. The man said, “Or maybe I’m just sick of it. My job. My life. I don’t know if what I’m doing has any meaning anymore. I’m thinking about leaving my law firm. Maybe even leaving the practice of law altogether.”
Then he stopped, shocked. “Wait.”
“I’ve never told anybody this stuff.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
But he scanned the stacks, unable to meet my gaze, and his voice cracked. “What did you do? What’s happening?”
“Don’t worry. People tell me secrets all the time.”
“I don’t. I don’t even know who you are.” He jabbed an index finger in the air between us. “My partners can’t know. This is confidential stuff.”
“I won’t tell anyone.” He still looked upset, so I said, “It’s not you. It’s just my face. It does that. People tell me things. I’m sorry.”
“People tell you things like this?” The man’s expression slowly changed as he regarded me, as if I had suddenly gone on clearance. Then he said, “Come work for me!”
“I’m offering you a job.” He now looked relaxed, expansive. He leaned back against the books in the B section.
“What kind of job?” I asked. I was afraid he was about to say something dirty.
But instead he said, “You could investigate my lawsuits for me. PI work. Talk to witnesses. Get them to open up.”
The idea was amazing, getting paid money for what usually ended up happening anyway. The man told me his name, Grayson. He said, “If you got that stuff out of me, you can get anything out of anyone.” Then he named a generous hourly rate, five times what I was earning as a temp for a pharmaceutical company.
At that point in my life I was destitute, despite the fact that I had “made it.” I was a thirty-three-year-old fiction writer. The year before I met this man, I’d had a short story published in The New Yorker. My collection of stories had come out with a major New York publisher. My book won a prize Toni Morrison had won ten years before.
Wasn’t it supposed to get easier once you got published? Instead, I was already forgotten and even more broke than before. I felt cheated by my own fantasies. My apartment was the size and shape of a one-car garage, chalky white and “garden” (basement) level. There was no garden, nor air-conditioning, nor a thermostat. I ate cheap food, which gave me daily stomach cramps. My bed was a nearly clean mattress I had found leaning against a Dumpster.
I was living with my decision to forgo some safe, progressively lucrative career in exchange for any writing time I could snatch. I had been temping for two years. That week, I was doing data entry and wearing a white name tag that said temp, although sometimes people called me “the new Linda.” It was an upgrade from my last temp job two weeks before, as a receptionist at a large medical practice where they refused to give me a chair because they couldn’t spare one from the crowded waiting room. I had to stand for eight hours a day crouched over their black eighteen-line phone to transfer calls, and my back and ego still hurt from it.
That year was the worst of a multiyear drought that plagued five western states. In the summer, sixteen fires had erupted across the state in the space of a few months. The flames were mostly ignited from lightning strikes on dry, beetle-killed lodgepole pines, except for one from a coal-seam fire that had been burning underground since 1910. All the fires killed nine firefighters and burned a total of almost 430,000 acres of forest in one summer, and some fires still burned into that autumn. Grayson’s clothes smelled dry-cleaned, but mine reeked of the mottled, unlaunderable campfire-like smoke, as did the books we held in our hands. There was no rain. This—Grayson’s offer—felt like rain.
I kept a running list of all the jobs I wanted to hold in my lifetime but never believed I could. “Private investigator” was number two, right after “writer,” and before about seventeen other jobs that included “composer,” “food critic,” and, for some reason, “cobbler.” Crime excited me in the abstract. I had wanted to be a PI ever since I read my first Dashiell Hammett book. I wanted to help people and find things out, not necessarily in that order. I wanted to be the one who could walk into a room and know what happened there.
I loved secrets, even terrible ones. Especially terrible ones. When people told me things, I felt happy. The more they didn’t want to tell me that secret, the happier I felt when they did. Secret information was something I earned at a cost—someone else’s cost. I could hoard that intelligence and never lose it. It was one of the few things in the world that was entirely mine.
Even if I hadn’t wanted the job, I would have taken it anyway. I was used to accepting any employment offered, regardless of how I felt about it. Lie to creditors? Sure! Lie about our money-back guarantee? Sure! Lie about the doctor’s nooner whereabouts to his wife as she jiggles a screaming toddler covered in chicken pox? Sure, absolutely, you bet!
So I didn’t even ask this lawyer about the cases, or what I’d have to do to extract the confessions he was talking about. It didn’t matter. He wanted me, so I would take the job. But this Grayson person seemed like a nice guy, so I said, “I have to make this clear. I don’t have any experience as a private investigator.” Grayson grinned.
“Perfect,” he said.
EXCERPTED FROM TELL ME EVERYTHING. COPYRIGHT © 2022 BY ERIKA KROUSE. EXCERPTED BY PERMISSION OF FLATIRON BOOKS, A DIVISION OF MACMILLAN PUBLISHERS. NO PART OF THIS EXCERPT MAY BE REPRODUCED OR REPRINTED WITHOUT PERMISSION IN WRITING FROM THE PUBLISHER.