woman undergoing a polygraph exam

The Polygraph

Feet propped up on an oversized desk, Sergeant Virgil Dell pulled a drag from the Winston Menthol he’d just lit up. A soft knock on the door of his small, windowless office interrupted his smoking break, prompting Dell to groan and check his watch.

“Shit.” Dell carefully snuffed out the ember of his cigarette, then hefted himself from his chair and made his way to the door. Opening it, he grumbled: “Well, aren’t you Miss Punctuality?”

A pretty redhead with a waist-length, Farrah Fawcett hairstyle blinked back at him. “I’m so sorry. I can come back later.”

“No, you’re fine. Come on in.”

The young woman standing at the threshold hesitated.

“It’s not gonna hurt. I promise.”

She made a nervous grab for the ornate gold cross hanging around her neck before tentatively stepping into the smoke-filled lair.

The room was sparsely furnished: An imposing utilitarian desk, its surface largely taken up by an analog polygraph machine, dominated the room. The polygraph machine consisted of a cold metal box topped with a frightening array of knobs and gauges. Recording needles hovered above a paper readout, poised to expose their victim’s deepest, darkest secrets. To the timid young woman, it looked like something out of Frankenstein’s laboratory.

A padded Steelcase chair was positioned in front of the desk but facing sideways so the chair’s occupant would look out to a bare, paneled wall and not, oddly enough, to the person behind the desk.

Virgil motioned to the padded chair. “Have a seat.” As he reseated himself behind the desk, he scrutinized the young woman. He’d been administering polygraph examinations to prospective Phoenix Police employees, both sworn and non-sworn, for close to ten years. He’d heard it all, and then some. This morning’s subject, Marlette Fahlstrom was, by far, the most nervous, most anxious examinee he’d ever laid eyes on. Virgil relit his Winston then flipped a page on a thick stack of papers on his desk. After taking a couple hits from his cig, he proceeded with his duties.

“Marlette Raye Fahlstrom?”

Still clutching her cross, the bundle of nerves whipped her head around: Eyes fully dilated and unblinking, she stared at him like a deer in the proverbial headlights.


Virgil flicked his ashes into a nearby coffee cup. “I’m Sergeant Dell and I’ll be administering your polygraph exam this morning. Allow me to explain to you how this works.”

Marlette gave a stiff nod of acknowledgment.

“Based on your background questionnaire responses, I’m going to ask you a series of questions, both to clarify and verify the information you’ve provided. I would urge you to answer my questions completely and honestly, leaving out no details. Then I’ll connect you to the polygraph and I’ll again ask you the same questions but you may only answer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The machine will record your physiological responses during this questioning—you’re heart rate, perspiration, and respiration. These involuntary responses are then translated electronically and recorded onto the paper readout. Do you have any questions before we get started?”

Marlette gulped some air and shook her head. She had questions but none she dared to ask, as she’d already been warned by her sister-in-law, Sarah,  what to expect…

~ ~

“A polygraph!” burst out Sarah at the family get-together the week before. “My cousin’s friend had one and it totally freaked her out. They asked her all sorts of private, creepy questions about her sex life, like if she’d ever had homosexual sex, or done it with animals, or committed any other perverted sexual stuff.”

Reeling in shock from Sarah’s hysterical accounting, Marlette had had a full week of mounting dread leading up to this day. She most certainly never had sex with animals; the mere thought of it sickened her. She did, however, have make-out sessions with her brother-in-law’s younger sister, Millie Jo, during sleepovers when they were kids. Millie Jo—pretty, popular, and outgoing—was far more experienced than Marlette when it came to members of the opposite sex; she was always the initiator of their secret nighttime sessions. Just wanted to teach shy, little Marlette how to handle boys, Millie Jo told her—how to kiss and touch them, how to writhe and moan in just the right way to get them so excited they’d beg for more. Truth be told, Marlette didn’t much care for boys back then, or girls for that matter. Yet when Millie Jo pressed her pajama-clad body fully on top of Marlette’s, slipped her hand up Marlette’s flannel top and kissed her until she was breathless, Marlette never thought to resist. Not because she enjoyed Millie Jo’s lessons but because she was awkwardly shy and felt overpowered by her friend’s dominant personality. Enjoyment or not, did their childhood fumblings count as homosexuality? Their infrequent sessions never went beyond necking and feeling each other out. Besides, they were both only eleven, far too young to know that what they were doing during those innocent summer sleepovers might one day, twelve years later, be cause for moral condemnation and the denial of a job she so desperately wanted. Marlette had given the matter considerable thought over the past week before finally coming to the conclusion that, no, it did not count as homosexual sex. They were just kids giving in to their natural curiosity.

But what was not so easy for Marlette to dismiss was that last thing sis-in-law Sarah had mentioned—the “other perverted sexual stuff” thing. Twenty-three-year-old Marlette was still as intensely shy as she was at age eleven about all matters pertaining to sex, and shamefully embarrassed about her woeful lack of experience with men. For her age, she was far behind all her female peers, all of whom, by now, had either steady boyfriends or were married with a kid or two. Not that Marlette was a virgin. She’d had sex exactly twice in her adult life, both times with much older married men who’d taken advantage of her while she was drunk. The first time, though five years ago, was still fresh in her mind…

~ ~

“He raped you!” is what her friend, Laura, exclaimed when Marlette confided in her about that first time. At eighteen, Marlette had been befriended by an older couple with four young children. On one occasion, they had her over for dinner to celebrate Marlette’s eighteenth birthday. Buck, the husband who was sixteen years her senior, made strawberry daiquiris for everyone…and kept on making them until which time Marlette, who had never before had anything stronger than a sip or two of beer, became violently ill. After an hour of heaving into a toilet, she fell into semi-consciousness. Unable to drive herself home, Buck’s wife, Tina, made a bed for her on the living room sofa. During the night, while his wife and kids slept, Buck snuck back into the living room, pulled down an unconscious Marlette’s panties, and penetrated her. At some point during his thrusting, she roused from her alcoholic fog just long enough to see him lift a finger to his lips: “Shhh! We don’t want to wake Tina or the kids.” He then placed his palm over her mouth to ensure her silence, which was wholly unnecessary as she had already blacked out again.

The next morning, severely hungover, Marlette told herself it had all been just a bad dream. But as she hastily exited the couple’s home, Buck shattered her attempt at self-denial and erased all doubts as to what, indeed, had actually happened. He had followed her out to her car where, out of earshot of the wife and kids, he offered her some fatherly advice:

“Next time, don’t just lie there. Try to be more assertive.”

His criticism stung. How was she supposed to be more assertive when she was all but unconscious?

In spite of her friend Laura’s indictment, Marlette had convinced herself back then it wasn’t rape, and she still believed that. She felt it was mostly her fault for letting herself get too drunk to defend herself from Buck’s unwanted advances, just as it was her fault when, at the age of nine, she confided in her mother about something her older brother Mitch had done to her. The scolding her mother gave her was so severe and the matter so settled that neither she, nor her mother, ever spoke of it again. Her mother never confronted her brother, leaving Marlette to believe that she, and she alone, was responsible for what he’d done to her. Throughout the remainder of her childhood, she never again confided in her mother. Why she confided in her friend Laura about her more recent experience, she didn’t know. She only knew that she regretted it, just as she had regretted telling her mother. In both instances, she should have just kept her mouth shut. No, she convinced herself, it wasn’t rape. She was more inclined to chalk up that first time to the harsh reality of youthful inexperience. And the second time? God, that second time

~ ~

Sitting in the Steelcase padded chair, half-listening as Sergeant Dell explained how the polygraph technology worked, Marlette tried to banish the memory of that second time but it was impossible to shake; the memory stuck to her like a wild beast affixed to her back; its talons sunk deep into her flesh. Marlette fingered the cross hanging around her neck and silently prayed to get through this polygraph without having to reveal too much of herself.

Dell began asking her the pre-examination questions, reading them straight from the background questionnaire she’d filled out. The first few questions were perfunctory, intended to validate the written information she’d provided on the questionnaire: State your full and legal name … your current address … your date of birth.

Then he reached the “education” section of the form.

“What high school did you attend?”

“Washington High,” she said, staring at the paneled wall that she faced. She again clutched at her necklace, dreading his inquiry into why she’d dropped out her senior year.

“Did you obtain a high school diploma or G.E.D.?”

“Yes, I did.” There was a long silence. Marlette turned her face to Dell, who was looking at her questioningly.

“Which one? A diploma or a G.E.D.?”

He already knew the answer. She’d put it down in the questionnaire yet she had hoped she wouldn’t have to explain it.

“A G.E.D.,” she finally answered, trying hard to hide the shame she felt over dropping out of school. Turning her face back to the wall, Marlette held her breath, anticipating the next, painfully obvious question.

“And who is your current employer?”

Marlette sat, dumbfounded. Dell had moved on to the next section of the questionnaire, skipping any interrogation into her dropping out of school.

“Your current employer?” he asked again.

“She stammered, struggling to contain her ecstatic relief and unexpected good fortune. Finally, she blurted out: “Maricopa County Rabies and Animal Control.”

Dell made notes on Marlette’s background questionnaire as he worked his way through his list of questions. He moved on to the criminal section of the form.

“Have you ever had your driver’s license revoked?”

“No, never.”

“Have you ever been convicted of driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs?”


“Do you have any felony convictions?”


“Have you ever been convicted of illegal drug possession or dealing?”


“Have you taken any illicit drugs within the past six months?

“No,” said Marlette, with confidence. She had done some pot and a bit of speed in high school, but that was the extent of her experimentation. Five years had passed since then, though the painful memories of her high school years still weighed heavily upon her.

“Have you answered everything on this background questionnaire truthfully and completely?”

“Yes. Yes, I have,” Marlette answered, realizing they’d reached the end of the questionnaire. Silently, she began cursing Sarah, her alarmist sister-in-law, for having tormented her with such outrageous rumors about what would be asked of her during a polygraph exam.

Dell pushed himself up from his chair and sauntered toward Marlette.

“Go ahead and rest both your arms on the chair’s armrests,” he instructed. “I’m now going to hook you up to the polygraph for the second phase of questioning.” Dell slipped finger plates sensors, used to measure perspiration, around two fingers of Marlette’s right hand. Next, he wrapped a pressure cuff around her left bicep which would measure her heart rate. “Is that comfortable?” he asked, “Not too tight?”

“No, it’s fine.”

“I’m now going to attach two straps across your chest that will measure your breathing rate.”

Marlette stiffened a bit as Dell fastened the straps into place. She relaxed as soon as he finished, grateful for the obvious care he’d taken to avoid touching her breasts.

Dell sat back down and flipped a switch on the machine. Immediately the pressure cuff began to inflate and tighten around Marlette’s arm.

“Still okay?” Dell asked.

“Yes, I’m fine.”

Dell flipped a couple more switches and adjusted various knobs. The machine sprang to life. The motor whirred. Lights flashed. The pens lowered to the paper, ready to record and reveal all of Marlette’s physiological responses to Dell’s probing questions.



“Remember, you must answer my questions with only a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Marlette willed her body to relax, in spite of the unnatural orientation of the chair and all the sensors strapped to her body. If the pre-exam questions were any indicator, she thought, the rest of the exam should be a breeze.

Dell started with the easy questions used to measure baseline biometrics: Is your name Marlette Raye Fahlstrom? Is your birthdate November 8, 1955? Do you live at 6105 North 31st Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona?

Marlette confidently answered his questions, as instructed, with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Dell continued down the questionnaire, asking all the questions he’d asked during the pre-exam phase. Finally, he neared the end of the questionnaire: “Have you taken any illicit drugs within the past six months?”

“No,” she said; a smile of victory spread across her face. She had this and she knew it. The job she so desperately wanted was just within reach.

Dell made some quick marks on the machine’s paper readout.

Marlette let out the breath she’d been holding. It was over. She waited for Dell to come and unstrap her.

But he didn’t. Instead, he asked yet another question.

“Have you ever engaged in a homosexual relationship?”

Marlette sat frozen, momentarily unable to speak. Her mind raced back to her sister-in-law’s forewarnings: Homosexuality? Sex with animals? Perverted sex? Panic seeped into her veins, spread through her limbs, and climbed up her spine. Her chest began to tingle with the same pins-and-needles sensation of a foot that’s fallen asleep. Her face felt as if fire might consume it.

“No,” she said, barely audible.

“Speak up, please.”


From her periphery, Marlette could see Dell marking the scrolling paper with his pen.

“Have you ever engaged in any unnatural sexual acts or committed any crimes against nature, including but not limited to bestiality, necrophilia, or sodomy?”

The fire licking at her face blazed out of control. The obvious answer to the question was, of course, ‘no’ except for one small detail:

That was a lie.

The memory of that second time forced itself into her consciousness. Trying to will it away proved pathetically fruitless. She could no longer ignore it nor deny its existence. But a greater force, denial, took over and pulled her back to safety.

Dell began to repeat the question: “Have you ever—”

“No,” she calmly stated.

Dell slapped off the machine and abruptly stopped the exam.

He leaned back into his chair, lit up a new Winston, and glared at her.

From the side of her eye, she could see him glaring. She tried to take a deep breath but the straps constraining her chest made it impossible.

“Let’s talk.” Dell finally said. Marlette turned on him and gave him a look of big, blue-eyed innocence. “About what?” she asked.

“Your physiological response to my last question was off the chart. You’re hiding something and that ‘something’ has to do with sex.”

Marlette squirmed in the chair, debating how to escape the corner he’d backed her into. She couldn’t tell him the complete truth but knew she had to tell him something.

“I had an affair with a married man. Well, not really an affair. It was just once…”

“Was it a Phoenix police officer?” Dell shot back.

“No. He’s the director of the county animal shelter where I work.”

Dell waved his cigarette. “As long as it wasn’t one of our officers, I don’t care.”

Marlette was about to breathe a sigh of relief, but was stopped short by Dell’s follow-up:

“People have affairs all the time—that’s not a crime against nature. What is it about my last question that caused such a reaction from you?”

Marlette fell silent. She couldn’t bring herself to divulge what Pete, the animal shelter’s director had done to her. What the “affair” she’d confessed to, actually was.

~ ~

It began at an after-hours office party at the shelter. Pete had thrown it, a celebratory send-off, for the kennel manager who was retiring. Alcohol flowed freely and Pete, serving as bartender, ensured everyone’s glasses, especially Marlette’s, were never empty. At the party’s end, Pete broke out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s 90-proof Tennessee Whisky for a final toast. He’d ‘accidentally’ filled Marlette’s glass to the brim, urging her to “drink up”. After everyone else had left for the night, Pete led her back into the kennel area on the pretense of showing Marlette, an animal lover, a pack of Greyhound racing dogs that had recently been surrendered. It was late at night; the kennel, dark and deserted except for hundreds of caged dogs, all frightened, confused, and barking desperately. As Pete and Marlette neared the far end of the kennel, the whiskey began to hit and Marlette suddenly felt sick. The foul smell of the dogs’ urine and excrement tore at her already convulsing stomach. But the worst smell filling the kennel—the palpable smell of the dogs’ fear—is what ripped her gut to shreds. She doubled over next to a kennel housing three beautiful, terrified Greyhounds, all destined to be killed, and began puking her guts out. Pete, 6’3” and built like a linebacker, was the husband of an older woman Marlette adored and admired—Pete had given Marlette the job at the shelter as a favor to his wife. Marlette trusted Pete.

When Marlette doubled over, Pete took it as an invitation. Before she knew what was happening, he’d ripped down her pantyhose and forcefully slammed his enormous shaft into her virgin rectum. As he pounded her flesh with the full force of his 250 pounds, Marlette, still vomiting, braced herself against the bars of the Greyhounds’ cage, trying hard as might to bite back her screams of pain. The dogs in the cage huddled tightly together, whimpered, and then fell silent, as they watched in horror the act of violence and betrayal playing out before them.

~ ~

Her memories of that night—the acrid smells, the wailing dogs, and the searing, white-hot pain—were still visceral and raw. Pete had brutally sodomized her and, up to now, Marlette had told no one. There was no way she could tell Sergeant Dell that it was the word “sodomy” that sent the recording pens flying off the chart. So, again, she lied.

“Bestiality,” she confessed.

Sgt. Dell’s mouth fell open. “You’ve had sex with animals?” He couldn’t believe what this shy, naïve, cross-clutching girl was telling him.

“Yes,” Marlette said. “We did it at the shelter, in the kennel. The dogs, you know…were watching.”

Dell burst out laughing. “Okay, well, that’s not exactly what the word means.” He tried to explain further but his uncontrolled laughter prevented him.

Marlette turned every shade of red. She was embarrassed that he thought her such a rube, but inwardly relieved that she got away with such a ridiculous explanation. Her secret of what really happened that night was still hers and hers alone.

“Look,” Dell said after he collected himself. “You seem like a sweet girl. Are you sure you want to work for the police department? It can be a pretty inhospitable place for someone as,” he paused, “inexperienced as you. You’ve got to have a tough hide to survive in this place.”

“I’m tougher than you think,” Marlette countered. “And I really want this job.”

And she did. Desperately. The Com Op I job paid twice as much as her job at the pound. Enough to move out of her parents’ house. Enough to quit her job at the shelter where she no longer had to face Pete every day and worry about when, not if, there would be a next time.

Dell tossed his cigarette into his coffee cup and rose from his chair. He rounded the desk and began detaching the cuff and the sensors from his latest examinee. Finished, he stepped back.

“Congratulations,” he told her. “You passed. Welcome to the Phoenix P.D.”

Marlette jumped from the chair, exuding gratitude.

 “Thank you. Thank you so much!” she repeated, over and over, as she made a hasty retreat out the door.

Alone again, Dell sat back down, collected the papers on his desk, and closed the file on Marlette Raye Fahlstrom. He shook his head.

 “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

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