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Voices: The Liar's Bench

by Garry Bazzani '73
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It seems like only moments ago I was on the operating table, listening to the doctors telling me that heart transplants were now routine. Funny the ways people respond to trying times like this. My own reaction has been an insatiable desire for nostalgia —old music, old friends, and old places.

My grandfather once told me that "you can never go home again." My aunt added that "only a fool never tries."

Home for me is Abiday, Indiana. With a population of 536, it is a small town. This is not debatable.

I’ve heard John Mellencamp refer to Bloomington as a small town. Larry Bird refers to Terre Haute as small, and my wife’s cousin says San Diego is a small town. So the term is somewhat relative. Abiday seems small because nearby Crawfordsville is 14,000; it in turn seems small because Lafayette, 30 miles north, has 45,000. My high-school history teacher, Mr. Mazzani, offered a similar argument when we used to whine about there being nothing to do in Abiday.

"It only seems that way because of the endless night life that Crawfordsville has to offer," Mr. Mazzani told us.
Such insights were called "Mazzani-isms" by generations of Abiday students and were considered either pearls of wisdom or sarcastic bullshit, depending upon the way you came at the world. He was frequently in the principal’s office for his more pointed "slips of the tongue," as he called them. But he always managed to talk his way out of trouble. That is, until the day he offered one of his pearls of wisdom in the direction of the school superintendent’s daughter.

Cindy Hardee was a junior in Mazzani’s class and a gorgeous girl; unfortunately she was six-foot-three and weighed about 65 pounds—the prototype for today’s fashion models. Mr. and Mrs. Hardee had requested a meeting to discuss what Mr. Mazzani would later call "an innocent little joke" about Cindy’s physique.

"I don’t understand all the fuss," Mr. Mazzani told the superintendent and his wife. "Cindy Lou is a very lucky young lady to be so thin. On the hottest summer day when the rest of us are looking for a big ol’ oak tree for shade, she has only to lay under the nearest clothesline."

Mr. Mazzani never returned after his month-long suspension. We heard years later that he was teaching at one of the big Indianapolis schools, dating most of the cheerleaders, and driving a Corvette Stingray. I’m not sure I believe this, as I remember him being a Ford man.

Before he moved to the big city, Mr. Mazzani had spent a lot of his non-teaching hours at Dean Muir’s barbershop, a place that witnessed more lies and bullshit than the United States Congress. Dean hated little boys and would send them crying from his shop, claiming he’d just poured Indian piss in their hair. An only child, Dean had three daughters, all extremely smart, all cheerleaders, and all, we assumed, very embarrassed most of the time.

Dean’s biggest problem was Mortimer Bunjon. Mortimer was a nonworking classic. No one ever knew how he survived, where he came from, or where he lived. If the prom queen had to choose between Mort and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mort would have been runner-up. He always wore a red-and-black flannel shirt covered by gray-and-white striped overalls, the kind made famous by railroad workers.

Dean’s issues with Mort were twofold: Mort never bathed or washed his clothes, and Mort loved to hang out in the barbershop.

But Dean had a plan. He built a bench, painted it white, and in great big blue letters trimmed in red (Dean did have a flair for decorating), he painted "Liar’s Bench." Then he gave free haircuts to the Gallo twins and their alter ego, Ralph Tucker.

The Gallo boys were Terry and Jerry, but of course we called them Ernest and Julio. They were infamous. Ralph Tucker was the preacher’s kid. We called him "Had" because he was so gullible, he could be "had" at any time. Mr. Mazzani once said that if you shaved Had’s head, you’d find three holes in the top just the right size for your fingers. It took us a while to realize that our teacher had just said that one of his students was as sharp as a bowling ball; Had is probably still trying to figure it out.

Dean’s plan was simple. The three boys would lure Mort onto the bench and entertain him—the Gallo boys with their trickery, and Had by nodding his porous head at everything Mort would say. In doing so, the boys would keep Mort out of Dean’s shop.

I was getting my hair cut the day Dean set his plan in motion.
It was mid-August, about 95 degrees with 100-percent humidity. Mort came up the north hill with the wind at his back. Steam was coming off of him like smoke off a coal that’s been pissed on. The minute Mort stepped inside, Dean told him the boys on the bench wanted to see him.

Mort was delighted. He walked out and sat between the Gallo twins. Unfortunately, Ernest was downwind. Before my haircut was done, he had already turned avocado green, which was a very popular color in those days. Mort was talking a mile a minute with the largest set of buckteeth I have ever seen, and such a lovely shade of brown. His breath could slit your throat.

I was getting down off the chair when Mort came back into the shop and announced that the boys had suddenly run off. Mort’s biological processes had repelled both extremes of kids in our town—the most conniving, and the most forgiving. He took his customary corner seat in front of the fan and adjusted it so we could all enjoy the stench.

Years later I heard that Ernest had served in Vietnam, had been on point during a patrol that came upon a three-day-old firefight. Burned bodies everywhere. Ernest was the only one who didn’t puke, and he gave credit where credit was due—to Mort. God surely works in mysterious ways, Mr. Mazzani would have said.

The other memory I have of the Liar’s Bench involves Don Beam (Jim to us) and Tom (Clark) Barr. Both were champion bullshit artists and had gotten into a bad argument over Clark’s 50-pound-catfish story and Jim’s 16-point-buck story. The Gallo twins were in the barbershop at the time, but when the real cussing started, Ernest left. Julio was about 12 years old, was still in the chair, and Dean was sick of the yelling outside his shop.

"If you’re going to quarrel like children, I’m going to send one out there to settle it," Dean said.

Both men relayed their stories and Julio listened intently. When they were finished, he sat quietly for a moment.

Then he announced his decision: "Men, why not compromise? Clark, why don’t you take 20 pounds off your fish? Then Jim could take four points off his buck." It could have been a turning point for the Gallo legend; the boys were known for being problems, not solving them.

But Jim and Clark would have none of it. They stormed off the Liar’s Bench and never spoke to each other or came into Dean’s shop again.

It’s funny, the things you remember at times like this—the places a dream may take you. Lying in this bed, I find that my own memory keeps returning to the people and moments that made me laugh. Which, when the doctors are telling you you’re about to get a new heart, is probably a good idea. Just close your eyes, smile, and youll wake up looking at the ones you love.*

Garry Bazzani worked in Crawfordsville, married Arlene Layne, raised two daughters—Amy and Heather—and built a home for his family in Waveland, IN. Garry died in July 2003, several years after his heart
transplant. "The Liar’s Bench" is an edited excerpt from stories he wrote near the end of his life.