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.”

Jesus Was a Carpenter
an excerpt from The Irish Sextet

posted Nov 2, 2010

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

Brother Cyril sat down in one of the deep armchairs facing the fireplace and picked up the copy of The Tidings left open on the Common Room side table.

As was nearly always the case, the previous reader had left it open to the announcements page, that section of the archdiocesan newspaper devoted to the comings and goings of the clergy. The newly ordained were listed there, as were the newly departed. Cyril always thought it tactful that the death announcements received the same size headlines as the appointments, both in the Church’s eyes being a form of promotion.

As he scanned toward the bottom of the page, a one-column headline jumped up and bit him:

New Pastor
Named at
Saint Anselm’s

Saint Anselm’s had been Father Galvin’s parish. There was no mention of Galvin, only the new pastor, a Father McNulty. Cyril scoured the rest of the page and then the rest of the paper. There was no mention of Father Michael Galvin anywhere in The Tidings.

Galvin had been Cyril’s predecessor as Dean of Discipline at Saint Patrick’s. Cyril had learned that Brother Malachy, the school’s principal, had requested the Bishop to move Galvin along, and then later he had learned the reason: Galvin had molested altar boys at a previous parish and there was a possibility he may have crossed some lines with students at Saint Patrick’s. Nothing had been proven, but it was Cyril’s view that no one had pursued the matter much either.

Now the man had unofficially disappeared. No headlines. No news. Cyril thought of asking Malachy what he had heard, but decided to save that.

Cyril looked up the number of Saint Anselm’s and asked to speak to Father McNulty. When McNulty answered the housekeeper’s summons, Cyril inquired after his old friend and classmate, Father Galvin.

There was a long pause and then Father McNulty asked, “Who is this again?” He sounded elderly.

“Brother Cyril at Saint Patrick’s high school,” and McNulty, clearly with pen in hand, asked for the spelling of his name and then asked, “And how is it, again, that you know Galvin?” Cyril duly noted that Father Galvin had become Galvin, which meant he had left the church. Father McNulty went on to say that he did not know Galvin personally, had never met the man, knew nothing of his circumstances, had himself just arrived, drafted from his parish in Stockton on short notice, following his vows of obedience. McNulty’s voice was like a wave breaking on those words, vows of obedience. Then he asked for Cyril’s phone number and said he would pass the enquiry along to the Bishop, as he was doing with all enquiries regarding Galvin. So there had been others.

Cyril followed the natural lines of enquiry. He called up The Tidings. The reporter there, a Mr. Frees, was even less helpful than Father McNulty. The Bishop was again invoked, and then legal precedent. “This is a general policy,” Mr. Frees said. He sounded as though he was reading from the boiler-plate text on personnel matters: “Because of legal liabilities and to protect the privacy rights of archdiocesan employees, we cannot provide any information as to the status or whereabouts of ...” There was a pause and Cyril realized that Mr. Frees also would not say Father Galvin. “... the man you asked about.”

“Then he’s left the church?” Cyril asked. Mr. Frees hung up.

The next policy statement came from Brother Malachy, who asked Cyril to refrain from further enquiries. “I can tell you,” Malachy said, “that Michael Galvin has left the priesthood, but that is as much as I know.” And then Malachy made an unexpected appeal to Cyril’s better nature. He asked that Cyril wait, hold off just a few months on his enquiries. Until the final construction work on the new school chapel had been completed, and the Bishop had come to consecrate the chapel and say the first mass there. They were walking on the school’s oval track when Malachy made this appeal; the football team was practicing on the green inside the oval. Neither of them paid attention because neither understood the game. Cyril began to understand the weight that Malachy carried, and how much the chapel meant to him. “This is unprecedented,” Malachy said. “It is the first time the Cardinal has paid for a high school chapel. It will be the first time that the Bishop has ever come to consecrate a chapel in the archdiocese. We are being favored. It may very well be because we helped with Father Galvin, but think what it will mean to the school. The Cardinal himself bought the altar and altarpiece, all in Carrara marble.”

Cyril snorted, “From the discretionary fund, no doubt.”

“Don’t disturb them,” Malachy pleaded.

*

Cyril decided he would not trouble Brother Malachy further; his next round of enquiries would be sub-rosa. He called Captain Costello at the Highland Park police station. Cyril had worked closely with Captain Costello the previous spring to avert what would have been a disastrous gang fight between Saint Patrick’s and the local public school, Hamilton High. The gang fight had been prevented but in the aftermath, one Saint Patrick’s student had been wounded and his brother killed in a drive-by shooting.

Cyril had found Captain Costello to be a true ally in that difficult time, and they had grown even closer in the months since. Captain Costello was a devout but practical Catholic.

They met at the monthly Knights of Columbus meeting at Saint Vincent’s in Eagle Rock, an excellent cover for them both; it was Captain Costello’s home parish and Cyril was an honored guest, come to recruit the K of C sons to Saint Patrick’s.

In the bar afterward, Cyril explained. “I’m in a pickle,” he said, “My predecessor as Dean of Discipline, a Father Galvin, may have sexually abused some students.”

Captain Costello stirred his scotch with a finger. “I met the man once. I remember him as enthusiastic.”

“I’m trying to track him down,” Cyril said. “The man has bunked. I’m getting no cooperation from the archdiocese. What I hoped was that you could trace him.”

“Would you say that there was an active lack of cooperation on the part of the Archdiocese?” Costello asked.

“I would,” Cyril said. “It’s not that they don’t care. Just the opposite.”

“Last known address?”

“Saint Anselm’s in Altadena. The new pastor claims to know nothing.”

“Let me make a few calls,” Costello said. “I’ll get back to you when I know something.”

*

In anger, Cyril had observed, Brother Malachy responded almost like a thermometer; a band of red, first visible at the base of his neck, would ascend until his forehead turned crimson and a vein throbbed there. When the excitement was more pleasant, Malachy grew pink; his freckles faded, his ears turned rosy, and eventually his face nearly matched his reddish hair.

Today he was pink. The marble altar piece for the chapel had arrived, seven heavy crates from Carrara in Italy. The two workmen who accompanied the crates, Gerd and Joachim Miller, were local artisans but their approach and attitude were definitely European. As Malachy excitedly told Cyril, their diamond-edged tools were Swiss and even their cloth tape measures were metric.

The original plans for the chapel called for wood, a good quality walnut for the altar table, walnut burl veneer for the fascia and cabinetry that would enclose the tabernacle. No Saintly relics had been included in the budget. The relic, usually a tooth or the hair or bones of a saint would be wrapped in lead foil and cemented in place beneath the altar stone during the consecration. Relics of martyrs were preferred but cost extra, and Saint Patrick’s could not afford even a more modest Saint.

Then the Cardinal had intervened, providing the five-piece altar slab and four-piece tabernacle enclosure, and also a holy relic, the authenticated hair and finger bone of a Saint Basilla, both virgin and martyr. The relics, with their Vatican certificates of authenticity, would remain with the archdiocesan office until the chapel’s consecration.

Malachy hovered over the Miller Brothers all week, beginning with the hoisting of the crates to the sixth floor—the largest was eight feet by three and weighed four hundred pounds. He oversaw their unpacking, the placement of the carved, beveled marble slabs on the beds of wet concrete troweled onto the wooden forms that the Miller Brothers had spent the last month constructing to the measurements furnished by the marble works. Everything fit. All was square and level and in line, plumb as the Miller Brothers delighted in showing Malachy. The Tabernacle was enclosed. All that remained was the final polish and the placement and cementing of the altar stone above Saint Basilla’s bone and hair.

Malachy exulted at the craft demonstrated in their marble. “Imagine, Man. Just imagine, this was made by workmen whose forefathers quarried blocks for Michelangelo.”

Even with the dust, and the lack of polish, Cyril was impressed by the stone and the craftsmanship. The altar table looked nearly seamless and clearly the five pieces had been cut whole from the same slab, then separated; the delicate green-black veins continued across the joints. The tabernacle housing was the same, with matched veins, and Cyril realized that the cut-out section of the altar table had been sliced into quarters, identical panels, beautifully book-matched.

The only carving was on the face of the altar table and it was light and delicate, more like engraving than carving, a scrolled filigree with hollowed scallop shells at each corner. It was thoughtful and beautiful craftsmanship, and even if Cyril couldn’t truly appreciate its quality, he could sense it watching the solemnity and reverence with which the Miller Brothers approached the stone. Both Gerd and Joachim would pause in their labors, stand back and sight along the stone, then run a hand along the surface as though they were stroking the fur of some fabulous beast.

*

The call came from Captain Costello and the gravity in his voice alerted Cyril. “Not good news,” Costello said. “And you need to understand, before we go any further, that this could hurt you, personally. The Cardinal is cranking up the drawbridge and boiling the oil.” He suggested they meet at the Tam O’Shanter on Los Feliz, a restaurant and bar well away from their normal haunts. “I don’t think we’ll run into anyone,” Costello said, “but I don’t plan to wear my uniform and I don’t think you should either.”

*

Cyril, uncomfortable out of uniform, parked on Los Feliz and walked back to the restaurant. Slacks seemed incredibly confining after a cassock, and he had to resist the impulse to pull down on the crotch.

The Tam O’Shanter, a mock Highlands Inn built in the 1920’s, looked like a set from Brigadoon. A squat round tower topped the low whitewashed building with a conical roof of fake thatch shaped like a witch’s hat. The front and sides simulated half-timbered construction, with aged-looking wooden beams protruding from the plaster. A red, many-windowed British telephone booth stood near the portico. Inside, the main room was filled with flags and tartans and heraldry. There were three fireplaces visible with simulated flames and a taped crackle. The waitresses all wore kilts and the bartender had mutton chop sideburns and garters on his puffy white sleeves. Captain Costello was ensconced in the Snug, a small booth at the end of the bar. He stood up as Cyril was escorted to him by the tartaned hostess. “Mr. Cleary,” he said. Cyril had asked for Mr. Costello. As they sat, a waitress immediately brought two drams of scotch, neat, and set them before Cyril. “You’ll like that,” Costello said. “The famous MacCallan, a single malt.”

“Did you find Father Galvin?” Cyril asked.

“It’s a long and winding tale,” Costello said. “We found him. He’s in Ireland. No longer a priest. How he got there is a little convoluted.” Cyril had his first sip and asked the waitress to bring him water. When she left, Costello continued.

“I started with a simple skip trace, Galvin’s last address. That was flagged by the boys in Vice and then the D.A.’s office. He was on both of their wish-lists. That’s where I got most of my information.

“Galvin was in Stockton and Tulare and Visalia, and he got pushed out at each parish for touchy-feely with the altar boys. They knew they had a problem, but they kept moving him around. Finally they bring him to Los Angeles, to Saint Patrick’s while he is also undergoing a course of therapy.”

“That was my understanding, corrective counseling, treatment for alcoholism.” Cyril sipped again and chased it with water.

“Did it work?” Costello asked.

“May have restrained him a bit,” Cyril said. “As far as we know, he did not molest any of the boys in any usual sense. He had some of them undress for corporal punishment.”

Costello gave him a long look. “Bare-ass caning? You’re right, that’s not the usual sense.”

Cyril flushed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m parroting my principal’s phraseology on the matter. This all took place the year before I took the job at Saint Patrick’s. I was appalled when I found out.”

“Brother Malachy,” Costello said. “So Brother Malachy calls up the Bishop, they move him out, move him along to Saint Anselm’s and things simmer down. For about two years. Then all hell breaks loose. Galvin recrosses the line, only this time, it’s the housekeeper’s daughter, fourteen years old. Sylvia Molina by name, and she’s pregnant. Then he really goes off the rails, tries to talk the kid into an abortion, starts dipping into the collection basket to pay for it. Sylvia freaks, I mean the kid is a devout Catholic. Why else would she be fucking a fifty year old priest? She thinks maybe God can forgive her for sins of the flesh, but not for killing a baby. She finally talks to her Mother, Inez, and Inez, who is even more devout than her daughter, decides the only thing to be done is to move up the heavenly chain of command. She never even thinks of calling the cops. She calls up the former Pastor at Saint Anselm’s, who is now a Monsignor and working downtown. Within the month, Sylvia is living at Saint Bridget’s, a private facility for wayward girls known for its good soup, kind nuns, round-the-clock medical care and counseling. Inez continues as housekeeper at Saint Anselm’s, but she now commutes from her new house in Whittier and her husband, Pedro has twelve landscaping contracts for churches in the San Gabriel Valley. Galvin, meantime, has disappeared with six month’s Sunday collections, which he uses to finance his nervous breakdown. He holes up in a motel in El Monte and starts writing letters to the kids and the parents of the kids he molested in Stockton, Tulare and Visalia, confessing, in detail as to what he did. They weren’t all altar boys. Galvin turns out to be an equal-opportunity predator. There were four girls. He apologizes and suggests that since he can’t offer restitution, he would be willing to testify, and admit his guilt, in any civil suit the families wanted to bring. This one is crucial, because the statute of limitations has run out for all these kids in the criminal courts.” Costello swallowed his scotch and nodded at Cyril.

“You can guess the rest. These kids aren’t kids any more, most of them are very fucked-up adults, and three of them are dead—one suicide, one drug o.d., one from AIDs. The letters arrive, the families go ballistic. Some go right to the local cops, which is how we get the news, but some of them go to their priests, and that sets the really big wheels in motion. What seems to make the Cardinal really crazy is the girls. We’ve seen this over and over, they look the other way—just a few queer priests, to be expected, doesn’t really count—but you get priests who screw anything that moves, that makes them wind up the catapults.”

Cyril finished his second scotch and Costello signaled for more rounds. “So the archdiocesan bloodhounds track Galvin down in about two days, we don’t know how; took us nearly a week. They seemed to have talked him down off the ledge and renewed his commitment to the church. All we really know is that they bought him a first-class, one-way ticket to Dublin on Aer Lingus, and an annuity, which continues, and is administrated by the archdiocese. We don’t know any of the details they don’t want us to know. The stone wall went up immediately afterwards, so all I have is the word of friends in the local constabulary. Galvin now lives happily in Cork. Enjoys the races, I’m told. Has applied for a teaching credential.”

Cyril accepted these last words like taps to his forehead, slightly recoiling, his eyes closed, his face now mottled.

When he opened his eyes again, his voice was strained. “Can he be extradited?”

“Not with what we’ve got.” Costello said. “It’s only the civil cases now and Galvin has since recanted on the letters and apologized for his nervous breakdown. There were apparently some settlements for some of the families. We can only guess which, the ones that stopped talking to us. Galvin is a done deal and you need to forget him. The D.A. has to concentrate on the cases he has a chance of winning. There are over six hundred.”

Cyril blanched. “Six hundred?”

“Did you think it was strictly local? Just the one guy? This was a whole lot of horny priests. Now it’s a problem because now we can put a dollar number on what it’s going to cost the Archdiocese and if you want to get the church’s attention all you need to do is present a bill. I found that out in a hurry. As soon as I started asking direct questions about Galvin, to the good priests who raised me, I started getting calls from my Superiors, asking what the fuck was I doing bothering the Bishop. If they can reach me, imagine what they can do to you.”

Cyril suddenly realized that Costello was fairly drunk. Costello’s focus and concentration in telling his tale had fooled Cyril.

“I should be ordering dinner,” Costello said, “but I’m not going to.”

Costello rubbed his nose and then looked hard at Cyril as though he were considering whether to go on. “Two of those cases are from Saint Vincent’s. My parish. A priest I knew well. The McNally brothers, good friends of my son, Jim. Great kids. I’d never understood why the light went out of them.” Costello’s broad hand gripped his forehead and his eyes squeezed shut, they opened again, reddened. “I’ve stopped going to mass,” he said. “37 years, never missed a Sunday. This isn’t the church I was raised in.” Costello stood and fumbled for his wallet, lurched sideways and caught himself on a chair. The Bartender looked up with alarm. Costello steadied himself and winked at Cyril. “I leave it to you.”

Cyril watched Costello walk out the front door and then panicked, he couldn’t remember how much cash he had on him, he did know that his only credit card was in the slit pocket of his cassock.

The waitress approached, “Would you like another drink?”

“No,” Cyril said, “Can you tell me how much we owe.”

“That’s all taken care of.” She nodded, “The other gentleman.”

Cyril drove back to Saint Patrick’s. He was remembering the scratch and grab of the boys at the seminary, rough and tumble that could turn strange, when you would look into the softening eye of the boy you’d pinned, but that was only friction. You took a shower. Prayed. Jacked off if you had to. Better the venial sin than the mortal. The natural feelings could be acknowledged but not acted upon. Cyril had come late to the seminary, after a flourishing career as an amateur boxer. He hadn’t been a virgin, far from it, but he knew many of his classmates were. His commitment had been one of discipline, the same discipline that had served him so well in the ring. It was the way to earn the education he craved, and he had succeeded, earning the bachelors at Trinity and the two years of graduate school in Madrid. Years later, in Los Angeles, he had been startled to see some of the meek boys of his seminary, confident and entitled, and, he knew, no longer virgins, swelled by their collars.

He knew what would happen if he pursued his questioning on Father Galvin. The questions would double back, his obedience would come in doubt, and he would be looked on as a troublemaker. It wasn’t in him to question the church from the outside, but it wasn’t possible from within. And the damage had been done. It might be officially ignored, but the damage had been done. Those kids, to do that to those kids, no matter how fucked up they were, how weak, how willing to please.

The famous passage came back to him, learned in the seminary. It had been a cautionary tale then, recited, repeatedly, but never explained, “Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones who believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged around his neck and he were cast in the sea.” No mention of a life-jacket annuity.

All were asleep at the rectory. Brother Cyril tugged off his slacks and sport shirt and drew on his cassock. Flashlight in hand, he unlocked the front door of the school and ascended the stairs to the fifth floor and unlocked the doors of the unconsecrated chapel. He closed the doors behind him and flicked the lights.

He was startled by the brightness. Three powerful new overhead lamps had been installed, one at each side, slanting, and one directly above, highlighting and dramatizing the gleaming expanse of marble. He had been there, the last day, when the Miller brothers had concluded their work, a final cleaning with distilled water and then the final polish with rouges and then a sealant.

What he remembered from that day was that neither Gerd nor Joachim wanted to leave. They found infinitesimal specks on the marble surface to buff out, and then went over the surface a last time with painter’s tack rags and a chamois cloth.

Brother Malachy had to finally urge them out the door, reminding them that they would be back for the consecration, that they would participate in the consecration cementing the altar stone over the remains of Saint Basilla. As the Miller Brothers backed out the door, Cyril noticed that they were leaving behind their canvas tool bags, slumped in a corner, and pointed this out. They said they would return for them, and it was clear that they wanted reasons to revisit their work.

Gazing now at the altar, Cyril understood their reluctance to leave; it was a thing of beauty, with an austere power.

He unzipped the bags and sorted through them. He drew out a heavy sledgehammer, a broad chisel, and a claw hammer.

All that week, in his Senior Honors English section they had been moving from late 19th to early 20th century poetry and Cyril had noted and been slightly bemused by the number of stones and altars and marbles there were in the poems. He thought the Miller Brothers might have enjoyed the class, from Tawny’s white Victorian sepulcher, “...that veined stone, beautiful to the eye, which hides the veined corruption within ...” to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, with its famous last line, “You must change your life.” Thrilling to Senior boys, terrifying to a man of Cyril’s age.

Approaching the altar, Cyril lifted the sledgehammer; his right hand slid up the shaft, then slid back to meet his gripping left hand as the hammer wheeled overhead and slammed down on the altarpiece. The stone panel cracked in five pieces, separating in the classic starburst pattern. Cyril broke up the five altar panels with five swings, then used the claw hammer and chisel to pry the pieces loose from the cement that bound them to the screen and plywood beneath. The fragments piled up around his feet as he hammered and pried, cracking in smaller pieces as they hit the pile. His head and hands and cassock were powdered with the white limestone dust. Sweat drew lines through his powdered face and neck as he hammered the lighter panels encasing the tabernacle. They shattered and fell and he clawed the last clinging fragments into the mound of rubble at his feet. In less than ten minutes, the months of work by the Miller brothers and that of the workers in Cararra was gone.

Panting, Cyril looked at his reflection in the gold tabernacle door. He tempered his fury. Malachy had paid for the door, not the Cardinal. Cyril swung the door open and stowed the Miller brother’s sledgehammer and broad chisel there. He left the chapel, lights blazing, marble dust hanging in the still air and stalked down the stairway, the claw hammer swinging loosely in his left hand.

He used his master key to open the door to Malachy’s office. He sat in Malachy’s chair, drew stationery from Malachy’s desk drawer and using Malachy’s fountain pen, printed out a message.

Jesus was a Carpenter and

wood was good enough for him.

He swept the desk pad to the floor, centered the paper on the desk and then pegged it there with the claws of the hammer embedded deep in the wooden veneer.

He left it there, left the lights on and the doors open and walked to the rectory to wash his face and change to civilian clothing.

Read the next installment of The Irish Sextet