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.”

Friction
an excerpt from The Irish Sextet

posted Jan 11, 2011

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

Cyril Cleary woke earlier than he would have liked. He’d neglected to trim the blinds and the sunlight striped him where he lay on the floor. He pulled a sofa cushion down on top of his head to shut out the glare, but the hangover was so bad that the cushion increased the throb.

He crawled to the bathroom, drank water from the bath spigot and threw up in the tub. He kept the water running and splashed himself then sank down beside the tub. His head felt swollen and fiercely hot. He pressed his cheek and temple against the tile floor, absorbing the coolness. When he felt steadier he sipped at the water and when he kept it down he grasped the edge of the tub and pulled himself up.

He careened to the kitchen, clenching one eye shut and then the other. When he reached the refrigerator he squinted both eyes, against the oncoming light, and nudged the door open. Mercifully, there was still a half full quart bottle of Rainier Ale.

He leaned against the cupboard and tipped the green bottle up with both hands, pushing the tip of his tongue to block the opening. He furled his tongue slightly and a trickle of ale funneled onto his palate. He gagged, held it, then swallowed slowly. The yeasty metallic taste rose into the devious sinal passages of his thrice broken nose.

His nostrils flared and he had to blink. Cyril shuddered but the ale descended, past heartburn, to his stomach, which he felt revolving at an infinitely slow rate.

He allowed a second swallow, lowered the bottle and tried a ginger belch. His eyes clenched as the gas ascended. Tears squeezed out and his forehead glistened but he didn’t throw up. The taut wire that bowed his shoulders backward, slackened.

Hangover wasn’t the right word. Hangover was something that happened to you. Hangover was passive, what was happening in his head and gut was active and deserved. English wouldn’t do, only Spanish would do. He’d earned the Cruda. Cruda, the poisonous cherry on top of the day he’d had before.

*

Cyril had worked now, nearly a year for Hoover Vacuums. It was only the third job of his life, following his twelve years as a Patrician Brother and teacher, and before that his career as a boxer.

He believed thoroughly in the value of the product and this conviction propelled his sales. He had been promoted the month before. His supervisor, Gus Melling, who was thrilled by Cyril’s success, talked about the Blarney Stone and the gift of gab. Because of that success, Melling had the past week moved him into an experimental program. Usually the salesmen worked on leads, but sometimes the Company would decide to explore a new territory and knock on every door. Cyril would be paid a dollar and a half for every door he knocked on, whether anyone answered or not. If he was active, he would make more than he could selling. It was a bonus of sorts.

Cyril decide that he wanted to sell, not just walk the neighborhood, and really knock Melling out. These would be cold calls, which he’d been forced to do as a trainee, and Cyril had done well then, with a method of his own. He would approach the first house of the day and knock, seeking only a name. When the door opened he would ask for Mrs. Catherine Cleary, who of course didn’t live there because she was his mother and lived in County Clare. The householder was usually relieved that this wasn’t a sales call, so when Cyril apologized and asked in a friendly way what her name was, “I’m so sorry Mrs. ...?” She would fill in the blank. Armed with the name, Cyril would knock at the next house. Just as the door cracked open, he would begin his spiel, “Your neighbor, Mrs. Doyle,” he would say, “ tells me you have a dirty rug.”

It wasn’t a Yes or No question and that was the genius. Cyril nearly always got in the door. If they admitted the rug was dirty, he was in. If they said there was no rug, he suggested that Mrs. Doyle must have meant the carpet, and agreeing on the old lady’s confusion, he was in. If they denied the rug was dirty, Cyril would bring in the vacuum cleaner, with its white paper filters to clearly demonstrate how filthy the rug was even if it had recently been vacuumed by inferior machines. Filter after filter would be dumped on a paper tray until the virtues of deep cleaning, superior suction and the best warranty in the business had registered.

When Melling gave Cyril his gift, the only thing that troubled him was the territory. It was near his old school, Saint Patrick’s, a neighborhood he’d avoided since he’d left. Yesterday he had followed his Thomas Guide to the fringe of the territory, Salsipuedes Street.

*

The name of the street troubled him and not just for what it meant, Sal Si Puedes—Get Out if You Can; the name was also familiar. His first stop was the corner house, a pistachio ice cream colored stucco cottage with peeling white trim and a false tile roof. 402 Salsipuedes Street. The letter box said Slezak. Cyril stepped into the screen porch and knocked confidently. He could smell a burning cigarette. He waited, listening to the whir of a fan, and knocked again. He could see the fan turning on its stalk on the floor next to a couch, and a hand tapping ashes into an ashtray on the bolster, beside the bolster was a tall sweating can of Schlitz Beer. “Mrs. Slezak,” Cyril called. He was startled by the hoarse voice that replied. “Yeah. Who wants to know?” Cyril declined to give his name. “I’m looking for Katherine Cleary, do you know if she lives next door?”

The Schlitz can lifted and descended, the cigarette glowed in the gloom. “What the fuck?,” Mrs. Slezak said, “Who the fuck? That’s Madden next door.” Cyril backed out, “Thank you,” he said. He picked up his case and backed the gleaming aluminum Hoover upright out from its parking space beside the door and wheeled down the sidewalk and up the front walk to 404 where he rang the bell with merry anticipation. He felt a sale. The door swung back and even before he could see a face, he was into it. “Mrs. Madden,” Cyril sang, “ your neighbor, Mrs. Slezak, tells me you have a very dirty rug.” The woman who looked down on him through the screen door, tall and hawk-faced seemed to swell before him and then she erupted. “That Bitch,” Mrs. Madden screeched, “She’s always telling people I’m dirty.” Cyril was nearly knocked down, and while Mrs. Madden rushed to pound on her neighbor’s door, Cyril slid down the street, his Hoover wobbling in tow. He skipped 406,because he was still in earshot of the screaming, and then 408, for luck. 410 was around a bend of the street.

410 Salsipuedes Street was a shingled bungalow that looked liked it had been added to again and again. The redwood shingles were in different stages of fade. It sat up on the crest of a rise, crowded by knee-high brown grass and fat stumpy palm trees that leaned against each other. The path that led to the house was cracked cement, overgrown with weeds and baby palms. The porch, supported by tottering brick columns, sagged and a tilted swing hung from one chain. Prosperity and initiative were not the messages given off by the house, but Cyril knocked loudly, through the screen and onto the solid windowless oak of the front door.

There was noise within. As the door swung back, Cyril sang out confidently, “I can smell a dirty rug!” The screen was pushed open and Cyril was smiling into the face of one of his problem students at Saint Patrick’s, Raymond Burchmore. Burchmore had clearly been wakened, his pompadour was flattened and crusted drool caked one corner of his mouth. His puffy eyes widened as he recognized Cyril and then lit with delight. Cyril hoisted his case from where he’d rested it on the porch. He reached behind him for the Vacuum cleaner.

When he was the Dean of Discipline at Saint Patrick’s, Cyril was more accustomed to seeing Burchmore’s corduroy clad backside, bent over and clenched in anticipation of Cyril’s thin bamboo cane. Five of the best usually, for tardiness, for disrespect, for fighting, for foul language. Burchmore was one of those he hated to whip because Burchmore was smart and learned nothing from the lesson. For Burchmore it was a simple transaction, momentary pain rather than what was more valuable: time.

Cyril knew what Burchmore was seeing: The seersucker jacket, the case, and in Cyril’s hiding hand, the Hoover and last, Cyril’s shining face. “No way,” Burchmore said. His face creased with intelligent humor, and then he started to laugh. It wasn’t forced or hollow. Burchmore just laughed. He interrupted himself only once, to choke out, “No one’s gonna believe it.” He laughed as Cyril turned from the porch and stepped down the cracked concrete path, cutting across the dead grass to the relief of the sidewalk. The laughter followed him at his measured pace for a good distance. Cyril called in sick and said he would need the next day off.

*

Cruda was the right word, Cyril thought, and so was borracho, it was a merrier word than drunk which seemed leaden.

At the Carleton Way liquor store near his apartment in Hollywood, Cyril had revived himself. He liked the place. Occasionally they stocked Guinness, which was hard to find in this pagan country, and when they didn’t, as was the case today, they always had Rainier, the green death. And they didn’t mind that he drank in their parking lot. The locals knew him and would leave him to drink in his car while he read the sporting pages. He would pay the tax, a dollar to the first equally hungover supplicant to approach him, and the rest would leave him alone.

He’d had breakfast at Dos Burritos on Hollywood Boulevard, the reliably greasy machaca con huevos. It was strange the way grease helped a true Cruda. Now, with a quart of Rainier behind him and a first sip of Jameson in hand, he was ready for contemplation. The problem with drinking, Cyril thought, was that the only time he could think about quitting was when he’d had a drink. He never thought that sober.

Time to move on. There was that other itch, the one that always surprised him, but always accompanied a sincere Cruda.

*

None of the usual girls were out. He’d cruised Sunset twice, Normandie to Western, and none showed. He tried Hollywood Boulevard, which he didn’t like because he didn’t know the girls there. This close to Christmas he didn’t think the cops would be trying undercover games but it was best to be careful. He sipped the Jameson in a virtuous styrofoam cup and turned on to Argyle.

She turned the corner as he turned the corner and she gave him a glance. She was very tall, with her dark hair pulled back and drawn into a bun. Her coloring was odd, not quite cocoa, more like a grubby white, but her hair was nappy. The giveaway was her legs, knotty and muscular from long trolling walks, and no mesh of stocking.

Cyril swung around the block and came round again. She had lingered at the Yucca intersection and followed him to the curb when he pulled over. The company car, a Mercury Montego which he found personally embarrassing, was reassuring to most of the girls.

She opened the door and deposited herself gracefully, then slumped in the seat and looked at him. Even slumped she was very tall. “You ain’t a cop are you?”, she said.

Cyril gently accelerated away from the curb. “Fear not,” he said, “and I’ll do anything you need to reassure you.” Her nail polish, which was purple, seemed artfully chipped and disturbing but then he remembered he was drunk and brilliantly overfocusing. He offered her the Jameson. She smelled it and left it in his hand.

Her name was Lucille and her apartment, which she preferred to you wasting your money on them cheap motels, was in Koreatown.

Cyril turned right on Western and drifted into an area where the signage appeared vaguely English but on second glance seemed humped and deranged, a language made of M’s and Y’s and U’s up and upside down.

There was a parking space directly in front of her building. Cyril installed four optimistic quarters in the meter, enough for two hours, and followed her in, focused but not quite able to absorb the machinations of her ass. Doors opened along the corridor as they walked to her room and then closed in disappointment behind them.

Her room was dim and close, dominated by the bed on which Cyril sprawled. “I hate to negotiate,” Cyril said, “But I like to come twice.” He handed her the forty dollars; one of the things he’d learned early was that all street transactions were now determined by ATM currency, multiples of twenty.

He liked that she was modest. She chose to undress in the corner, turned a bit sideways. Her breasts were small but beautiful and pointed. As she took off her panties she turned her back. She paused with her back toward him and gave a small shaking movement, almost a ripple. It might be her ritual, Cyril thought, her preparing. She brought her arms back behind her. Her hands were balled and then she flicked them open, like a dancer. She turned and walked oddly toward him, with tiny mincing steps, almost a shuffle. She swayed when she reached the bed and dropped onto it with a sizeable thump.

Cyril reached for her. His head bent to her small dark nipples and his hand slid to her groin. He licked her right breast and his hand moved down over her pubic mound and began the descent between her legs.

“Jesus Christ!” Cyril said. He sat upright. “You should have said!”

“Thought you knew, baby,” she said. “Thought I was what you had in mind.”

Thank God she’d not been hard, Cyril was thinking, I don’t know if I could have dealt with that. And the other side of that coin was, that means she didn’t fancy him. Which was worse?

“Why don’t I just suck you off,” she said.

Her cock was clearly visible now, the pause and the turn had been to tuck it behind her and that explained the odd almost Geishalike shuffle toward him.

Cyril took a swallow of Jameson and knelt before her supine body on the bed, his eyes closed. She took him in hand and took him in. It felt good but when he’d swollen he became aware of the noises. He knew that noise, he’d spent much time around the elderly and recognized the odd clicking, grinding sound of false teeth, slipping in place. He could remember his mother making that noise, idly as she rocked and knitted. Cyril’s eyes opened and he looked down. She really was large.

“Could you take your teeth out?” Cyril said.

She looked up at him and let him drop. “I promised my boyfren’ I’d only do that for him.”

“Ah,” Cyril said, “Where are we then?”

She rolled over on her stomach and stirred suggestively.

“Why don’t you just fuck me.”

“What’s it like?”

“Well I wouldn’t know, but peoples tell me it’s like a pussy, only tighter.”

She reached behind her and spread her cheeks. Cyril stared down at the furrowed brown corona, it was wider and more relaxed than he would have expected. She burrowed into the pillow beneath her chin. “It’s all just friction, honey.”

Cyril thought of the excited sailor’s explanation in Fanny Hill, for entering the wrong hole, Any port in a storm, Ma’am

He tried, but he wasn’t hard enough to penetrate.

“Don’t we need some lubricant?,” Cyril said.

“Just spit. Spit’s enough.”

Cyril spat but the moisture didn’t help. He gave up and lowered himself to slide back and forth between her cheeks. After a time he understood it was useless and stopped.

She turned her head, “You done?”

Cyril slid off of her and reached for his Jameson.

She stirred with new energy, got up and put on a wrapper.

She retrieved the two bills Cyril had given her and tucked them in her wrapper pocket.

“Is there a way I could have known?” Cyril said.

She stood profiled and smiled, then lifted her chin and stroked her neck. Cyril saw her distinctly male larynx. “Adam’s apple, baby. Adam’s apple. Eve’s don’t got “em. Tits are cheap. That Adam’s apple costs.”

Cyril swallowed the last of the Jameson and shuddered.

“Was it James Joyce who said, “I’m prepared to make a lifelong mistake’?”

She looked at him curiously then, as if he might have turned strange on her. “I dunno honey.”

“I may have.”

She regarded him for a moment and then turned to look at herself in the corner mirror. “Thas fine honey. Look, I’m going to order me a pizza. You want some?”

Cyril shook his head.

“You can stay,” she said, “but I’m really hungry.”

She went across the hall, where there was a phone, and ordered her pizza, after telling him exactly what she was going to do. The door was unlocked across the hall but there didn’t seem to be anyone there. She left both doors open so he could listen and see her and not be afraid. Afraid was the least of what he was. While she was calling, Cyril wandered out into the hall and wandered down it. The music in the hall got very loud, strange electronic music against a background of drums, horns, cymbals and what sounded like throat singing. The music was from the last door on the right, closest to the entry; the door was open now and as he passed Cyril looked in.

There were a lot of them in there, it was hard to tell how many because they kept bouncing around, kids mostly but some weren’t and they were all moving. There was a lot of light in the room from the open windows and it seemed airy, even though there were a lot of mattresses crowded in there. Some were jumping on the mattresses and then rebounding from the walls. There was a lot of flung sweat and spiky black hair. They were Korean kids he guessed, that made sense, but they could be Japanese. Many of them were wearing white headbands with Asian symbols, but some of them looked more like they had head wounds and had been bandaged. The red letters looked like blood. The effect was brave, like Kamikaze pilots photographed after their final saké. It seemed to be important to collide or nearly collide and gain new energy. They were like birds battering at each other, but with no sense of fear or entrapment like birds in a room would be. Cyril couldn’t decide if they were drugged or religiously ecstatic. They bounded about the room insanely and didn’t seem to care that he saw them. At the height of his bounce one boy smiled or grimaced at Cyril and then his eyes rolled back as he dropped, shouting.

Outside, even though it was now rush hour, seemed peaceful.

Cyril thought about going back inside but he decided that no one could have imagined that. Best to push on.

There was plenty of time left on the meter. Less than 30 minutes had passed and that shocked him. Cyril put another quarter into the meter and set off walking. He found a quiet bar, Duffy’s, a good Irish name, although the clientele seemed to be central American. They could be Guatemalan or Salvadorean or even Honduran, he couldn’t place the accent, and they were clearly worried about him, particularly after he ordered in Spanish. He was drinking Depth Charges now, shots of house whiskey dropped into a mug of draft beer, but he didn’t want to worry them in case they thought he was Migra. He wanted to reassure them. On his path to the bathroom, he walked through a small room with a pool table. It was like a room in a house with wall to wall burnt orange carpet. The pool table was nearly luminous under the overhead lights; the green felt and the scattered balls shimmered. “The Green Fire,” Cyril said.

The players cleared a path for him, chalking their cues and looking elsewhere and he was reminded of his obligation to reassure them. He turned back to them in the doorway, “Yo soy borracho,” he said, “and now I’m going to the bathroom. I really got to piss. I’m drunk, but I’m not Migra.”

The room was empty when he came back, and so was most of the bar room. The bartender, wiping glasses, looked at him sourly. Cyril remembered his name, he always asked the name as he sat down, a salesman’s habit. “José,” Cyril said, “You have a really dirty rug back there.” The bartender wiped Cyril’s cleared space and nudged a neatly written tab to its center. “José,” Cyril said, “I think I can help you.”

Read the conclusion