Liar, Liar


No one would have dared look the old, grizzled man in the eye, that bulging, opalescent eye, and say Liar, liar to him when he told them tales about his soldier days in Europe.

Liar, liar, pants on fire.

But they said it behind his back. When the neighbor kids were younger—young enough to tolerate adult storytelling, and old enough to sift truth from fibs, but not too grown to snicker and make faces and tease in sing-song ways kids have when they mock—they swore that Uncle Ray was the biggest, boldest liar in town, and maybe in all of Texas. And they weren’t alone. Uncle Ray’s nephews swore the same thing, and his nephews’ kids, as they grew older, as they grew into the neighborhood’s tradition of disbelieving, of mocking, of calling liars like Uncle Ray out.

The disbelievers included Uncle Ray’s only son, his adopted son, the one who was at once inside and outside Ray’s circle, the one who had an inside track on what happened in Germany and France when the old man fought in World War II, when, as the old man liked to say, he faced death at sunrise, at noon, and at dinnertime, when the fires of the camp congratulated him on still being alive.


The stories typically spilled out at the end of the day. Uncle Ray would finish supper, always at six, and step onto his wooden porch, the one he’d painted olive drab years ago when a neighbor laughed at him for telling how he’d killed a German sharpshooter in a tree.

“I was squatting in the forest,” said Uncle Ray, and he paused for effect: “shaving.” The kids sitting along the edge of the warped pine porch snickered. “I had a mirror, and I saw the German’s reflection in it. He was perched in a tree about twenty feet behind me, and I could see the muzzle of his rifle.”

Uncle Ray squatted on the boards and cocked his arms as if he held a mirror in one hand and a handgun in the other. He looked slowly from child to child, examining each face, gauging each child’s attention. He glanced at his compadre, Sergio, the plumber from across the street who came over occasionally after supper to have a beer with Ray. The older boys looked at Ray with eyes wide, their laughter in check, ready to spill forth with just a few more minutes of storytelling. The older boys knew these lines by heart. The young ones were still learning them.

“But of course I had Juanito,” Ray said proudly, holding up his empty hand with thumb and forefinger hooked around an imaginary gun. He smiled at his hand, his imaginary gun, and held it pointing to the sky with pride. “And Juanito never let me down.”

Some of the kids who’d been swinging in the old black tire dangling like an executed donut from the mesquite tree ambled over to hear this part. They sat on the bare dirt around the porch and hugged their knees with anticipation.

“But I didn’t want the Nazi to know I’d seen him,” Ray said carefully, proud of his judgment. “So I lifted my leg slowly and shot my pistol between my legs, and killed the bastard!”  There was the collective holding of breath all around. Uncle Ray’s favorite part of the story was coming up.

“And the German bastard fell from that tree like a monster garbage truck and landed right behind me. I saw it all in my mirror!” He lifted his hand that held the imaginary mirror and gazed at it with infinite appreciation. “The mirror saved my life!”

As if on cue, the children broke into tsunamis of laughter, mocking laughter. They whooped and hollered and ran around the dusty yard. Uncle Ray looked at them—again— and shook his head. Sergio, however, had not heard this story before, and he instantly registered his critique. He stood up abruptly and knocked over his rickety brown chair.

“You’re a disgrace, Ray! You’re a goddam disgrace, saying those lies in front of all these children!” He stood stock-still, half-empty beer bottle in hand, and glared at his neighbor.

Uncle Ray was stunned. He was used to the children’s doubts and jabs. But these words, these insults coming from his adult neighbor, cut him to the quick. He snatched the beer bottle from Sergio’s hand and tossed it into a bush. He poked his forefinger, the one that had been a gun just moments prior, into Sergio’s chest and said, “How can you say this? How can you say this, Sergio?”

Uncle Ray’s gaunt frame trembled. His voice quavered. He glowered at Sergio, his opalescent eye throbbing and seeming to grow, and marched indoors without another word.


The adopted son, Carlos, was always caught in the middle. He loved his father Ray, but he was a kid, too, barely thirteen, and the raucous mockers rolling in the dirt with hilarity were his friends. He had tried defending his father many times in the past, had chided the boys for doubting Ray’s stories, had even sworn once on a Bible (his grandmother’s Bible, borrowed for this holy purpose) that all of Ray’s stories were true, and he, Carlos, had proof of this.

But, alas, when the time came to show proof, Carlos had found himself in the fire: there was no proof, of course. Who could have proof of such aggrandizing, far-fetched tales?  A child’s innocent faith, implicit faith, in his father’s goodness, his father’s integrity, can only go so far. And for Carlos, unfortunately, his faith in his adoptive father’s honesty was circumscribed by the circumstances of his birth and thus didn’t go too far.

Carlos was born to a servant girl who worked for Ray’s brother in San Antonio. The girl was fifteen, a wisp of a girl who was still a child herself.  Nobody ever discovered the father’s identity, for the girl held that secret sewn tightly into her bosom. It wasn’t Ray’s brother, to be sure, so Carlos could claim not a drop of blood to link him with Ray and the rest of the family who ultimately welcomed him so magnanimously into their fold.

Still, Carlos had endured years of identity crisis leading up to the adoption. He’d lived in nameless villages across the border, had stayed with people who endangered his safety, had grown accustomed to seeing his mother, the itinerant servant girl, sporadically. Ray and his wife finally adopted Carlos when he was seven years old. By then, sad to say, the boy had learned distrust, had learned the frailty of man and fathers.

But Ray doted on the boy.  The son he never fathered, the son who came to him late in life, very late in life, when Ray had long since returned from the Greatest War with chest full of stories, eyes wild with drama, and infinite patience in recounting incidents again and again to doubting audiences, as if repetition would eventually confer credibility upon his tales. Ray loved the boy and proved it by telling him stories in private that the others never got to hear: stories of more daunting risks, greater damages to the enemy, louder explosions on the battlefield, and more heart-thumping feats of courage than killing a Nazi in a tree.

But sometimes at night, Ray wept.

The first time Carlos heard this, the boy tiptoed out of bed toward Ray’s door, unbelieving that his father would be weeping. His father, the man who repelled hordes of barbaric Europeans in places Carlos couldn’t even find on the atlas at school, foreign places Carlos couldn’t pronounce. This man with a machine gun welded onto his hands, both hands, this man who could walk for days without water, like a camel, to fight a pitched battle in the middle of the night, like a dragon. No, a man like this has no tears. Carlos could not believe his father was weeping.

But he was.

Sitting on the floor outside his father’s door that first time, Carlos strove mightily to understand how it is that iron men can be weak.


Uncle Ray painted his back porch olive drab the day after he argued with Sergio. He bought the paint at an army surplus store forty miles away, in the big city, and spent half a day cleaning, sanding, and painting his little stage, his little theater—his military theater of war, you could say—the color he held dear: olive drab. How appropriate. As if olive drab could make his stories true.

His wife was furious. She was the poster child for spousal ambivalence. Neighbors used to say that Susana had endured too many years of Ray’s lies and was finally standing up for her own sanity. On the day Ray painted his porch, their porch, that god-awful color, she’d packed her cardboard suitcase and huffed off to stay for a week with her mother in Laredo.

But it hadn’t always been this way.

Neighbors can’t always fill in gaps in gossip, and they can’t always make up credible fillers for gaps. So gaps there were, but this much was known:  Ray hadn’t been “all there” when he came back from the war. Decades ago, they said, the Army had sent him somewhere else when the war ended, not home to Susana. Sent him up to San Antonio, they said. Veterans Hospital, they said. And he was there for over a year, they said. Over two years, some said. No, three.

And then the unfillable gaps appeared.

Did he go crazy? Did he know who he was anymore? Was he wounded? What happened to his eye? Was that a glass eye, or someone else’s eye, maybe a dead soldier’s eye? Could he be healed? Did he go crazy?

And then the gaps that elicited greater curiosity, hushed sometimes in guilt and embarrassment on the neighbors’ part for daring to wonder: Could he still “do it”? Was he still a whole man? Did Susana still love him?

When Uncle Ray had finally been sent home to Susana, the couple were  rarely apart. It was, neighbors said, as if they were making up for the years of fighting in Europe, and the time he spent at the VA. Ray and Susana were like newlyweds, arms linked as they walked down the grocery aisles at the market, hands held as they walked up the aisle to their favorite pew in St. Martin’s Church every Sunday, lips locked as they stole a kiss after supper on the little porch that became, one day, Uncle Ray’s stage for his outrageous stories of war and hell.

Still, they never had children. Or, maybe Susana did, and the baby died. Maybe it wasn’t Ray’s kid. Neighbors remembered that she’d been away in Laredo, living with her mother, Susana said, for a long spell when Ray was overseas. She’d locked up their little blue house on the corner of King and Armstrong, her brown cardboard suitcase in hand, with a friend of hers carrying two more suitcases to the taxicab that took her to the bus station. Susana couldn’t drive in those years, they said, so she rode the bus to Laredo.

And  maybe had a kid.  And maybe she was sad because the kid died, and that’s why she wanted to adopt Carlos so badly. Maybe Ray knew about the kid, and that’s why he wanted to adopt, too. Or maybe Ray had gone crazy in the war, and really wasn’t a whole man, maybe couldn’t father any kids, and maybe he was so sad over it, and that’s why he wanted to adopt little Carlos.

And the gaps were inevitably filled in, right or wrong or sideways. Who cared for truth.

And the years passed, and Ray and Susana turned gray, and their newlywed bliss dissipated, as all romance does. And Carlos entered their lives, the little scrawny boy with Indian hair and brown, soulful eyes that won the neighbors’ hearts right away. And Ray the veteran slowly metamorphosed into Ray the geezer who sat on his back porch after supper and entertained the neighbor kids with wild tales of war and heroism, his bulging opalescent eye never twitching or giving any hints whatsoever that he was such a liar, liar, pants on fire.


Uncle Ray couldn’t remember exactly when the fighting ended, when he gathered up his implements of war, his grimy knapsack and leaden rifle, and trudged through mud and rain to link up with the other Yanks. He recalled the rain, then the sun beating on his bare head, the rest stops by devastated walls, churches with roofs blasted off and stained glass windows still intact. He recalled the liberated faces, mouths open with hollers of happiness as they cheered Ray and the others trudging past, wending their way down village roads and past cattle lying stiff in pastures, legs raised to the sky in firm salute to victory for America.

Uncle Ray remembered the men he didn’t see again, not in the marches through villages and towns, and not on that final day when the victorious were gloriously rounded up and ushered into ships heavy and broad and crammed with others, ships that would take them away from these demolished shores back to their pristine America the beautiful. He remembered these absent men, invisible men, whose faces danced in front of him, their noses and eyes and mustaches as fresh in his mind as when they were all rookies together, all frightened of being away from small towns, from everyone they knew, and frightened of going across the big ocean and shooting people who spoke different words and who didn’t know anything about America, or Texas, or his neighborhood. He remembered this binding fear, this communal fear, this collective fear of leaving their beds, not knowing when their weary, weary bodies would rest warm and alive, weary, but alive and not dead. Not knowing this.

Uncle Ray couldn’t remember when his eye rolled out, or why, or where. Did anyone look for it? He barely remembered how they stopped the hot river of red that poured past his chin into his hands and theirs. He remembered seeing branches of trees—so many fat, muscular branches!—waving and rubbing the sky, scratching the clouds in that same blue expanse that turned to blackness pricked with silver. And he remembered how the blackness spread when they lay him warm and weary into a bed at last, and voices rumbled past, footsteps on wooden floors scraping and stopping next to his elbows. And men with octopus arms clanging blades that sliced and spikes that slid into his veins and cold rags that rubbed his skin and stuck to his legs and chest and face, and all this happened all the time, all at once, a hundred hands and arms pushing and pulling him when he couldn’t defend himself. What a fine way to treat a soldier.

This he remembered.

But he couldn’t remember exactly when Susana came back. When he held her and kissed her face, her mouth. And she kissed him back. And she didn’t think about the baby anymore and was only glad to see him again, to have him again, and he could go back to his house and fix the broken door and fix the window pane and help her cook and clean. Try as hard as he could, he couldn’t remember, and these voids tore at him.

He awoke sometimes at night, Susana curled on her side of the blanket, and the blasted walls and stiffened cattle and absent men and black skies and slicing hands swept over him in unforgiving waves, punctuated by large, cold swaths of emptiness he could not decipher, could never understand.

It was enough to make any grown man weep.


“Tell us another story!” the oldest boy said. He smiled knowingly at the two others sitting by him on the olive drab porch. Carlos had gone to the store for some milk, so the old man was alone with the neighborhood kids. He picked at his teeth with the same toothpick he’d used after lunch.

“Tell us about the time you saved the tower!” another boy prodded. He ducked his head and giggled.

Uncle Ray never needed too much prompting. He picked at his teeth, scanning the August sky, perhaps gearing up, perhaps flipping through his mental rolodex to pick and choose what he’d narrate today. Picking at his brain like he picked at his teeth. The neighbor boys sat silent. Were they that bored? Most of them had TV’s at home, though it was a poor neighborhood. But most of the fathers worked, like Sergio across the street, who never came to Ray’s house again, not since their argument and the painting of the porch. All the neighbors knew how they’d fallen out with one another.

Neighbors would tell you that the war stories had begun a full ten years after Ray’s return from overseas. “The silent period,” some called this time of no stories. He was too shell-shocked, some said. He was too crazy to even remember the war, some said. He was getting over the pain and didn’t want to talk about it, some said. And perhaps the biggest gap-filler of all: He was making up stuff in his mind. He was preparing his lies.

But once the decade passed, it was as if all the dams of Holland had burst. Ray told stories to the children as he worked under the hood of his old, black Chevrolet. He told stories to anyone around him while he raked leaves and carted trash to the dusty streetside curb. He recounted war episodes as he scraped and painted the walls of the house he’d lived in all his life. At first the audience was small, the children coming into his unfenced yard because he had a plot of grass they could play touch football on. He had a porch they could sit on. He had a wife who sometimes, if the sun was hot enough, brought out a pitcher of ice-cold Kool-Aid and paper cups.

And then Carlos was adopted, and he became their friend. The cohort of children grew as the children grew, as their circles of friends widened to include kids from blocks away, or from another school, for the town was small enough that nothing was too far away. And as the audience grew, so did Uncle Ray’s penchant for telling war stories. Neighbors said, when they heard their sons recount the tales heard that day, that maybe Uncle Ray was purging himself of all the evil he’d seen and done. Like taking a big Ex-Lax and feeling relieved. Neighbors faulted Ray, however, for relieving his guilt by filling their children’s ears with lies.

Such it is in neighborhoods, like a flu that sprints from family member to family member, then from house to house, or like dreaded head lice, with children infected one after the other, head after head, body after body, all sick with a big, collective illness. Such it is with neighborhoods and judgments, with one uttered here, repeated there, picked up over yonder, replicating themselves—these bits of gossip and rumor, these attributions and aspersions, these gaps and gap-fillers—until there is a collective condemnation of a man or woman or child or idea. Such it was with Uncle Ray, war veteran, sick soldier, teller of tales too tall to stomach, reliever of guilt who used kids, innocent kids, to feel better about himself, about his sick, distorted self.

Who knows if Uncle Ray knew all this. If he did, did it matter? For years after that silent decade, he’d told his stories in summer sun and winter chill, in the throes of chores, or mellowed with beer. He’d chatted about his exploits with generation after generation of boys and girls, mostly boys, who sat at his feet and listened rapturously at first, listened to this iron man, this American hero, talk about what the other side of the world looked like. Then slowly, as lice jumping like Olympians from head to head, word spread that Uncle Ray’s stories were ridiculously far-fetched, that they were lies, that Ray was, in short, a liar, liar, pants on fire.


This is how the tower was saved. The Eiffel Tower.

Ray was head of the artillery division that had entered Paris shortly after the invasion of Normandy. As a sergeant, he knew how to use the big guns and when. Americans were thick in their liberation effort with the Allies, and a day came that could’ve changed the face of Paris forever, a day that involved Ray but that nobody else would ever know about, except for the soldiers who were near him, around him that day, and his commanding officer who had given Ray an order that Ray defied on the spot.

“There are German soldiers up on that tower, Sergeant,” the captain told him, pointing. “They’re shooting down at our men over there. Blast the tower and blast those Nazis to hell!”

Ray said: “No, sir. We can’t blast that tower.”

The captain repeated his order. Ray refused again.

“With all respect, sir,” he said, “that’s the Eiffel. The French people, and the world, would never forgive us for destroying it.”

The captain thought about this. He really didn’t care what that tower of metal was. A tower is a tower. At the moment, it was a a giant metal cage, a cage of vipers. He said so. Everyone around Ray heard this. But the captain fiddled with the buttons on his tunic and shook his head.

“What the hell,” he said. He looked around at the men and said, “Go find other targets, then, targets that we can blast to hell.”

Ray, according to the men around him, saved the Eiffel Tower.

This is the story Uncle Ray told the children on his porch.

He had told it many times in the past, the children’s laughter growing wilder with each telling. But today, when Carlos had returned from the store and caught the tail end of the jeering, he decided he couldn’t take it anymore. He took the milk carton into the kitchen and promptly returned outside to face the boys. He didn’t know what he would say to them, but his heart knew he must say something. He noticed that a few other children were trickling into the yard, evidently attracted by the unfolding drama. Wasn’t this, after all, why they kept coming to listen to Uncle Ray’s stories? Who in the neighborhood didn’t like drama?

Struggling to keep his voice even, Carlos asked the boy closest to him, “What did YOUR father do in the war?” The boy looked down and shrugged. Carlos looked at the other boys, pointing at them one by one, and at the one girl who’d tagged along with her cousin.

“They didn’t do NOTHIN’!” he spat.

Three smaller boys decided they wanted to go home and ran down the gravel driveway. Carlos looked at their retreating figures as he fought to keep his voice controlled.

“Look at my father’s eye!” He pointed to Ray. Ray stood tall and straight, his arms locked behind him as if he were at parade rest, back in training camp, back in France, back when his pain didn’t include children. He endured the children staring at his face as if for the first time.  “You don’t know how much of my father’s stories are true, but you know for sure that he was shot.”

At this, Carlos’ voice caught in his throat. He pressed his lips together so they wouldn’t tremble and hurried into the house.


It was past midnight when Uncle Ray rose from his bed and tiptoed toward Carlos’ room. He had no intention of waking the child. He just wanted to look in on him, as he’d done each night for the past six years. He stepped into the threshold and was greeted by Carlos’ voice in the darkness.

“It’s OK, Papa. I’m awake.”

Ray wafted to his son’s bedside. Moments passed before the boy spoke again.

“Why do you endure it, Papa?”

“What’s there to endure, Carlitos?” He hadn’t called his son this for a few years now, but the name rolled off his tongue like in the old days, the days when Carlos fit in the cradle of his arms as he fell asleep sometimes, sitting on Ray’s lap as they watched TV, Ray and Susana and Carlos a complete little family oblivious to stories of war.

Maybe it was the sentimentality of “Carlitos,” or maybe a thirteen-year-old boy was learning the limits of humiliation—humiliation allowed,  humiliation ignored—but  Carlos began sobbing and covered his face in shame, shame for himself, who was in the process of becoming a man, and shame for his father, whose manhood had passed painfully away, and whose gray hairs and destroyed eye should count for more, much more, in the  neighborhood. Feeling lost, Ray could only pat his son’s shoulder as the boy muffled his crying. Ray had no idea what to say, what to do. He could only feel his son’s sadness, though he didn’t understand it.

And Carlos was lost, too. Always in the middle. But he stood against his friends today, spoke against them and maybe lost their friendship. And his father?  How could he tell such lies week after week, year after year, knowing everyone knew he was a liar? How could he face them, endure their jeers, and carry on with life? How could he, Carlos, hold his head up in the neighborhood when his father was a joke?

The iron man sat quietly on the bed, stroking his son’s hair, patting his shoulders, for what else was there to do?  Sergio, the boys, the neighbors. Among them, in the end, who mattered?  He learned long ago, when he returned, that his life had already been lived. What could they do to him, say to him that would matter to him?

The absent men mattered. The broken, torn men in the fields of France and Germany and the halls of hospitals mattered. He’d given his eye as a part of himself left behind, for people who mattered, for the villagers with cheering mouths, in a land where he mattered. He’d been to purgatory and beyond. In such circumstances, how can the mind survive intact? Which truth survives, and which is distorted by destruction we avert?

He had crossed the big water to lands he saved, where he found himself and lost himself. And in the tellings, he kept finding himself again and again, kept remembering how he had mattered so much, so very, very much, to so many, so very long ago. Anything else can be endured.


Bio:  Thelma T. Reyna

Thelma T. Reyna ’s new poetry chapbook, Hearts in Common, was a semifinalist in a national poetry competition, as was her first chapbook, Breath & Bone. Dr. Reyna is also author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories, winner of four national awards. Her stories, poems, essays, articles, book reviews, and other nonfiction have appeared in literary and academic journals, anthologies, textbooks, blogs, and regional media. Thelma’s fourth book, Life & Other Important Things, will be published in 2013.

Dr. Reyna is an editor, ghost writer, and writing consultant with her business, The Writing Pros. A graduate of UCLA, she also writes the blogs “American Latina/o Writers Today” ( and “The Literary Self” ( ). She is a book reviewer for, and a guest blogger for Contact her at

MAY 2013

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