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Lies I’ll Tell My Son, by Michael Keenan Gutierrez

Updated: Jul 12


Photo of empty playground
Fable, Bibiana Ossai

My great-grandfather was a bookie. This is true. He worked a corner in downtown Los Angeles back in the 30s and 40s, running a newspaper stand as a front, selling the old Examiner, while taking bets on the side. This was back when Los Angeles had streetcars you could ride all the way to the beach. Think Who Framed Roger Rabbit. His name was Frank Keenan, but everyone called him “Red,” because he was ginger, because he was Irish, and because it was a time when grown men had nicknames.


From there it gets a little murky. Legend says that back in Boston he was an orphan, sort of. His mother gave him up when he was seven, but she could still visit him at the boy’s home. There were rumors she was crazy, that she was a prostitute. When he was 14, he won a draft card for WWI in a poker game. I’m pretty sure I saw something similar in a movie. After the war he came out west and worked various slightly seedy jobs, including singing in a few Hollywood movies. My mother has a picture of him with Dick Powell. During the 20s, he met and married my great-grandmother Barbara Donohue, late of St. Paul. The story is she got sick of the cold winters and hitched a ride with a biker gang out to Los Angeles for the sun. She was six feet tall while Red was a squat 5’4”. I’ve seen the pictures. Their marriage certificate puts them in Montana in 1926, though why they were up there, I can’t honestly say.


When my grandmother—Red’s daughter—died a few years back, we held a party for her. At the end of the night our family went through some old papers, which included two birth certificates and three draft cards for Red. The birth date is different in each of them. The names are different on the draft cards. My uncle said, “They were all a bunch of fucking liars.”


Red isn’t alone in my family lore. I apparently also have a great-great uncle who rode with Pancho Villa and another who invented the telephone before Alexander Graham Bell but somehow we got screwed out of the fortune.


* * *


My grandfather worked for the city of Los Angeles for nearly forty years. He did road crew work and set controlled burns in the brushy hills surrounding the city. My father was a property manager. He worked until he was 56 years old and died at 58. Both were good men. They each have only one birth certificate and neither played poker or rode in a biker gang or rebelled against Mexico.


* * *


I’ve been thinking about the men in my family ever since I had a son. In the books they tell you not to lie to the child. Tell him the truth, except about Santa Claus and death. Heaven exists and your grandparents are playing with Butch the Dog. But the problem I run into is this: the truth of my family isn’t as interesting as the fiction.


The origin story of a scrappy man making his way through cunning and guile has always appealed to me more than the standard formula of work, retirement, and death. As a child, Red gave me the sense that the world could be more magical than a paycheck and a mortgage and perhaps that’s why I write fiction. The seed was formed with my great-grandfather, or, more accurately, with the mixture of legend and truth surrounding him.


* * *


The narratives we hear as children form in our minds what is possible out of life. It’s up to parents whether that story is magical realism or stark realism, comedy or tragedy, Garcia-Marquez or Raymond Carver.


* * *


I have decided to lie to my son, outright and without guilt.


I will tell him fantastical yarns of his family’s past. I will shade the truth in fiction, and exaggerate details, and let innuendo spur his imagination. He will get Santa Claus and Pancho Villa and Red Keenan. I’ll tell him fiction writers never lose at poker. And I’ll let him figure out heaven on his own.


Michael Keenan Gutierrez is the author of The Trench Angel (Leapfrog) and earned degrees from UCLA, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of New Hampshire. His work has been published in The Guardian, The Delmarva Review, The Collagist, Scarab, The Pisgah Review, Untoward, The Boiler, and Crossborder. His screenplay, The Granite State, was a finalist at the Austin Film Festival, and he has received fellowships from The University of Houston and the New York Public Library. He lives with his wife in Chapel Hill where he teaches writing at the University of North Carolina. His website is michaelkeenangutierrez.com.

Bibiana O. Ossai is the winner of the Equinox Journal 2019 Poetry Contest and a recipient of the Marilyn Boutwell Creative Writing Award from Long Island University's Humanities Department. Her works appear in The River, The Book Smuggler's Den, Refractions ( literary online journal), and The Republic Journal. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from LIU Brooklyn. Bibiana is also a self-taught photographer and the Idyllwild Arts Writers Program Fellowship awardee (postponed due to covid-19). When she is not writing, Bibiana manages her own book club called “Nooks & Crannies.” This is her debut art publication.


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