Lou Mathews is the author of L.A. Breakdown.
Lou Mathews, L.A. Breakdown
© Malvern

L.A. Breakdown, about illegal street racing, was picked by the Los Angeles Times as a Best Book of 1999.

Mathews has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, a California Arts Council Fiction Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Katherine Anne Porter Prize. He has published recent work in New Madrid, Short Story, Harpur Palate, and the last three issues of Black Clock. His short story, “The Moon Reaches Down for Me Like the Fist in a Siquieros Painting” is forthcoming in Black Clock #13—The Mix Tape, containing 24 stories from the first 12 issues of the magazine. His short stories have been anthologized in Valley Light, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Love Stories for the Rest of Us, L.A. Shorts, Portales, and The Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery. His non-fiction has been published in the Los Angeles Times, L.A. Reader, L.A. Weekly, Mother Jones, Tin House, and L.A. Style, where he was a contributing editor for eight years and a restaurant reviewer for forty-three pounds. He has taught fiction writing and literature in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program since 1989.

Want to know more about Lou and his work? Click here.

We’ve published two more stories by Mathews: “The Garlic Eater” and “Huevos.”

Corporal Punishment
an excerpt from The Irish Sextet

posted Oct 12, 2010

Read more of The Irish Sextet:
An Education | Corporal Punishment | Jesus Was a Carpenter | Naming | Friction | Barefoot Saints

At Saint Patrick’s High School, in the Fall of 1975, the Student/Faculty handbook listed these duties for the school’s Dean of Discipline: The Dean determines and metes out punishment to students who break school rules. The punishments are temporal—detention, suspension and expulsion—and corporal—caning.

When Brother Cyril became the new Dean of Discipline, he believed the job should be as simple as that handbook description and he had no ambivalence. His own schooling included corporal punishment and in his career as a boxer he had learned the lasting value of discipline. He had not heard much about the previous Dean, Father Galvin, but he came to know him, in the same way that anthropologists reassemble the lives of the dead.

In Father Galvin’s old office, when he unlocked his desk, Cyril learned that Galvin had kept meticulous records of every student who had appeared before him. When he unlocked the office closet, he learned that Galvin favored an array of weaponry. Staggered in display on a framed pegboard were a whippy, split bamboo cane, a thicker pointer, a sawed broomstick and an actual paddle. The paddle was a wide, flat thing, like a cricket bat, with holes drilled in its length, for speed was Cyril’s guess. At the business end was a decal, a screaming eagle with talons clutched to strike, the symbol of Saint Patrick’s athletic teams. Vertically lettered on the handle was the motto Go Eagles! Cyril lifted the cane down from its pegs, left it on the desk and locked the rest away.

*

Corporal punishment, Brother Malachy reminded Cyril, was always the student’s choice. Brother Malachy was the school principal and the man who had appointed Cyril Dean of Discipline. It was late in the fall semester, demerits had accumulated and the first cases would reach Cyril shortly. Demerits had to be cleared before Christmas. Always ask, Malachy said; if they feared the paddle they could opt for detention. Very few picked detention when Cyril asked. The trade was three swats for an hour of detention, five swats for two hours. The other brothers encouraged students to pick corporal punishment, as the manly choice; detention for a student necessarily meant detention for a brother as well.

The first time Cyril administered punishment he learned more about the previous regime. The student, a tall and sulky Junior named Henry Clausen, was a repeat offender. Henry’s widowed mother had indulged him in a car, a cherry red “68 Chevy with white tuck and roll upholstery and blatting pipes that thrilled his classmates. The car was supposed to ensure Henry’s timely attendance at school -- he lived in Boyle Heights, near downtown L.A. -- but what actually happened was that Henry was now tardy, two days out of five, because he preferred to cruise Holy Family, a girl’s high school in Glendale where the car drew appreciative looks.

Henry told Cyril he couldn’t take detention because he had to drive his mother to the store. Cyril doubted that but what he said was, “Are you ready then?”

Henry looked baffled. “Don’t I get to choose?”

Henry was asking about the choice of weapons and it became clear that Father Galvin had complicated the procedure with odd rules. According to Clausen, if you chose the bulkier paddle, you only received one swat instead of three, or two instead of five. The number of swats went up as the weapon became thinner.

Brother Cyril explained the new regime. “It’s two hours detention, Clausen, or five of the best. I use the cane.” Cyril used the cane because that was what was used on him. “Which will it be?”

Clausen stood, unbuttoned his corduroys and let them slip down his legs. He bent over, grabbed his ankles and waited. Cyril stared at his white cotton-clad backside. “What are you doing Clausen?” Clausen looked through his legs, “huh?,” he said.

“Pull up your pants, man. Pull them up.” Clausen levered his pants back up, buttoned and bent again, and Cyril delivered, five whistling strokes.

With each succeeding penitent, Cyril learned more about his predecessor. After lowering his pants and then pulling them back up, Eddie Gonzales told him that Father Galvin had insisted on disclosure even for clothed whippings because a wiseguy once had padded his pants with a towel.

From Tom Koyer, he learned that those who dropped their pants expected lesser blows, Galvin’s theory being that the thickness of pants meant he had to swing harder for the same effect. As Tom explained, if you picked the big paddle and dropped your pants, you got a love tap. Pants on, the whack left stripes.

With Felix Rodriguez, Cyril arrived at the final level of excavation. Felix was a departure from the usual penitents. A small boy, soft and tremulous, Felix was sniffling even before Cyril opened the office door. He held out a rare and immediate pink detention slip, signed by Brother Ivar. “He says I cheated,” said Felix, “but I didn’t, I just had something in my eye.” Cyril opened Galvin’s ledger. Felix was a habitual cheater, he’d been caught four times the previous year. There was a note in his predecessor’s firm, back-slanted script on the first occasion: Parental Pressure. Cyril made a guess. “What’s your grade average, Felix?”

Felix wiped his nose and looked at the floor. “C+,” he whispered.

“And what do your parents expect?”

Felix’s head lifted up and his expression was stricken. “You’re not going to talk to them are you? Father Galvin said that as long as I took my punishment, they didn’t have to know. Are you going to tell?” His voice trembled and his eyes brimmed. Cyril could scarcely believe the boy was in high school. At the moment he looked about ten years old.

Cyril relented, he wrote his own note below Galvin’s—See about extra-credit projects—thinking that the boy might improve his grades with extra-curricular work. Felix was crying silently now, bent over in his chair and knuckling his face. Cyril touched his shoulder. “We’ll keep it between ourselves, Felix. Stand up now.”

Felix wiped his face and stood up, hiccupping. Cyril turned to pick up his bamboo cane. Felix loosened his trousers and let them drop, then pulled down his checked boxer shorts. He bent over, his eyes clenched shut, and Cyril stared, astonished, at the boy’s bared buttocks. “Rodriguez! Stand up. Put your clothes on!” Still bent, Felix twisted around, startled. Cyril prodded him on the shoulder with the cane. “Stand up. Dress yourself.”

When Felix was dressed, Cyril sat him down again. “Was that what you did with Father Galvin?” Felix was anxious to please now and talkative, aroused by Cyril’s curiosity. “The first time, Father Galvin hit me with the big paddle, and I couldn’t stand it. He knocked me down. He asked me if I wanted the cane for the rest of the swats and I told him I changed my mind and wanted detention. He said he couldn’t do that “cause we’d already started, but then he said he’d hit softer if I wasn’t wearing my pants and even softer if I took down my underpants. Father Galvin said the real punishment was the waiting. He had me close my eyes and plug my ears, so I wouldn’t know when it was coming. It was awful, the waiting, but then he hardly touched me. Just a tap.”

Cyril set the cane down on his desk. Felix watched him carefully, seeking an attitude. “Felix,” Cyril said, “I don’t want to beat you, but I don’t want you cheating ever again. I’m going to ask your teachers to give you extra-credit homework assignments and let’s see if we can’t raise your grades a bit that way.”

“Thank you, Brother Cyril,” Felix said, “Do I have to tell my parents?”

“No. No need,” Cyril said. He paused, with emphasis. “Unless I learn that you are cheating again. If that happens, they will have to come see me.”

Felix’s face had lightened until Cyril paused and then the spark of hope in his eyes turned to ash. Cyril held open the door, “I don’t want to see you again, Rodriguez.” Felix slipped by him and scuttled down the hall, head down, his hands fisted against his chest. The bell rang, and then echoed on the floors above. Five minutes to two. Cyril locked the office, and headed for the stairs and his fifth period Spanish class.

The only time he had ever met Father Galvin was at the Saint Patrick’s end-of-year Awards Banquet the previous June. Galvin had returned from his new parish in Altadena to give out the awards for Sodality and Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, the two student organizations for which he had been Faculty Advisor. Cyril, who was teaching that year at St. Monica’s, was there because Brother Malachy had asked him to be, so that he could meet the faculty and students he would be joining the next year.

Afterwards, Malachy introduced them. Cyril disliked Father Galvin on sight for his enthusiasm. He had an over-firm handshake, a practiced baritone, and he was one of those priests who stood too close to you. Usually they were younger, and Galvin was clearly in his forties and wearing down, his tan was webbed with fine wrinkles and the rose in his cheeks was turning to veins.

Cyril was surprised to learn he was from County Kerry. He’d taken him for a city lout. Galvin was a toucher, not a rural trait. If you were beside him, his arm went round your shoulders, if you were in front of him, he reached for your sleeve or your elbow or touched your shoulder. Some of the boys obviously thrilled to his touch—he had set membership and attendance records with Sodality and Confraternity by intense recruitment and rewards of bowling nights and field trips to amusement parks—some of the boys just as obviously avoided him.

At the end of the evening, when Brother Malachy walked him to his car, Cyril had asked, “Why is it Kerry Men are so daft and have such a high opinion of themselves?” He was only making conversation, but he was curious of Malachy’s view of Father Galvin.

“It’s beautiful countryside,” Malachy said, “Kerry.”

“You think that’s it, then,” Cyril said. “They wake up every morning, congratulating themselves on their genius, choosing to live in such beauty.”

“Unlike the clear-eyed sons of County Clare,” Malachy said. They were both from County Clare. They’d reached Cyril’s station wagon, borrowed from the nuns. “Who wake to beauty and ignore it.”

“Differently daft,” Cyril said.

Malachy held the door open and Cyril slid in. “Galvin was born in Kerry. But I don’t think he lived there long.” It was a curiously mild remark for Malachy, Cyril thought, driving away.

*

After the three o’clock bell, Cyril snagged Malachy on his way out of Algebra. Malachy suggested Cyril join him on his afternoon constitution.

They took to the track, the packed red dirt oval that surrounded the football field. They kept to the outside lane, the track team used the inner lanes for their practice. Whistles, the thud of the shotput and the clatter of falling hurdles punctuated their conversation.

Halfway through their second lap, Cyril spoke. “Tell me about Father Galvin.”

Brother Malachy studied his feet carefully, avoiding the white chalk line marking their lane. “In what way?”

“How did he come to us?”

“He was between parishes.”

“Was that usual?”

“No, that was unusual.”

“How did it happen?”

“The Bishop asked us a favor.”

“The Bishop?”

“Yes, the Bishop.” An ungainly sprinter flailed by them on the curve. “The Cardinal was also invoked.”

“That’s a lot of candlepower for one priest, why did they do it?”

They were recrossing the start line for the quarter-mile, Malachy was ahead by a stride. He stopped and looked at Cyril. “Father Galvin was undergoing a course of therapy nearby. They wanted to keep him active and useful the rest of the day.”

“What sort of therapy?”

“There had been a drinking problem.” Cyril, ready to interrupt, sensed a hesitancy and shut up. “And ...,” Malachy finished, “there had been complaints from parents. He may have served liquor to altar boys. They went on camping trips. Some of the boys said he touched them.”

“O Jaysus,” Cyril was out of diplomacy. “So they send him to a boy’s school? And you let them do it?”

“He was held out to us as a man with a drinking problem.” Cyril noted how carefully Malachy was speaking. “I didn’t learn about the other until later.”

They had stopped walking now and stood near the baseball batting cage where the shotputters practiced. “And how did we learn about the other?”

Malachy linked his fingers through the cross wire of the cage, where a tall fat boy in green sweats cradled a shot against his bent neck. The chalk on the shot and his hand had powdered his neck white. “Galvin told me. He had progressed enough in his therapy, he said, that he felt the need to tell me. He swore to me that he would not touch one of our boys.”

“Except with a cane or a paddle.”

“Yes,” Malachy said.

Cyril found himself speaking in a furiously measured voice. “Yes. Yes. Felix Rodriguez, this afternoon, bared his ass for me. Yes? A little trick he learned for Galvin. Yes?”

“Felix was never touched.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do.” Malachy pulled on the cage. “I interviewed every boy. Not one of them had been touched.”

“Except with the paddle.”

“Touched inappropriately.”

The shotputter dipped into a semi-crouch, head still cocked to the side, the steel ball pressed between his palm and his neck. “And when you finished your research?”

“I relieved him of his duties as Dean of Discipline. I made a call to the Bishop. They moved him along to his new parish. He’s still in therapy. The Bishop says the therapy is working.”

“And if the therapy stops working?”

The shotputter shuffled forward, turning in short choppy steps. The routine was not ingrained yet, you could almost sense him counting. As his foot nudged the toe-board, he uncoiled and heaved the shot skyward with a grunt and a yell. They looked to see where it would land. The ball thudded down just short of a marker flag, forty feet.

“Good throw, Karl!,” Malachy shouted. The boy turned, smiling. “Thank you, Brother,” he said, and then looked grave, “but I think I had a foot-foul.”

“Looked fine to me,” Malachy said.

“Brother Malachy says he didn’t see it,” Cyril said sharply. “So there’s no foul.”

Malachy let go of the cage, and ticked off his points on his hands, the way he taught his debaters to do. “One. No boy was touched. Inappropriately. Two. The man has moved on. Three, our standing with the Archdiocese, on whom we depend, has improved. You don’t have to think about these things, I do. We’ve received funds for our chapel, from the Cardinal, two years ahead of schedule. And four. The Bishop comes next May, to consecrate the chapel. The first time the Bishop has consecrated any school chapel in this Archdiocese”

Karl had retrieved his shot and shambled back to the cage. He dropped the steel ball into a flat box of powdered chalk at his feet. A thick puff of the chalk dust wafted toward Malachy and Cyril, and when it reached them, Cyril snapped his head back, as though he’d smelled something acrid. “What’s in that chalk, Karl?”

Karl, squatting to roll the ball and coat his hands looked up mildly. “It’s chalk. Gymnast’s chalk. It gives you a better grip.”

“Thought I caught a whiff of sulfur,” Cyril said. Karl looked puzzled. Malachy turned and headed back to the outer lane, he had to skip slightly to regain his stride. Cyril gripped the chain link of the cage and he leaned in to address Karl. His knuckles were white and his voice was louder than needed to reach Karl. “Perhaps it’s not the chalk. Perhaps it’s just out there on the wind.”

Read the next installment of The Irish Sextet