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.”

Barefoot Saints
an excerpt from The Irish Sextet

posted Feb 15, 2011

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

When Cyril Cleary was fired by Encyclopedia Americana he plunged into full time debauchery with a sense of duty. In the last two years he had also been fired by Hoover Vacuum Cleaners, Singer Sewing Machine, Schenkel Cutlery and Los Angeles Roofing, but Americana—bowdlerized imitators of Encyclopedia Britannica—to be let go by the likes of them was an inspiring low. Even his counselor at the California State Employment office, after snorting at Cyril’s job description—Door to door to door to door. Slam, slam, slam, slam...—couldn’t think of another option. Americana had been the last, where he sent his damaged cases.

A sad eyed, ritually smiling man, Mr. Martello regarded Cyril’s file for the appropriate duration and then Cyril. “Do you have any objections to physical labor?” he asked. “I know you’re well educated, but perhaps some physical work would be good. Outdoors, put you back on your feet, slow the drinking a bit.” Cyril studied Mr. Martello’s sad eyes, swimming behind his thick spectacles, his ridiculous stick arms floating from his crepey white short-sleeved shirt, the tremors of his hands, and saw a fellow boozer. Mr. Martello’s gaze dropped. “Well, think about it. The only other thought I had was that you might go back to the Church. My understanding is that forgiveness is required by that Institution.” A rictus of a smile. “Prodigal Son and all that.” They left it there. Cyril went to collect his check at another desk belonging to a large blonde woman poised before a typewriter. She asked his exact name and spell it please so that I may correctly type it. When he did, the woman shied at his whisky breath, her chins trembled with indignation as she handed the state voucher to him.

His liquor store was pleased to cash the check. Mr. Park, the successor to Mr. Kim at Lupé’s Groceries, now Lupé’s Liquors, delighted in stability, and government checks were the best. Cyril made concessions to his new budget. He refused the proffered fifth of his usual Jameson and asked for a quart of Old Crow, a savings of eight dollars. He brought a tallboy sixpack of Rainier Ale to the counter, a three dollar saving over his beloved Guinness. He had already resolved to stay out of costly bars. He had only used them as a convenience, stops between the door to door, he tried not to drink on the street while working. He wouldn’t miss the people or the laggardly conversations he met there. He’d yet to find a philosopher or even an historian in an American bar. Unless the boxing was on, or soccer, and soccer was never on for long unless it was a Mexican bar, there wasn’t much to talk about.

With these economies in place, he would have enough to refine his taste in whores. He scoured San Fernando Road and Eagle Rock Boulevard, sipping his ale with the Buick’s windows down, so that he could converse with the women as they walked or sat on bus benches.

He was particular. He avoided the beautiful, the too young, the flashy, the well dressed jaunty whores. Lightly soiled doves were once his choice but his taste had darkened. Cyril drove miles, circling and funneling down, seeking out the wounded, the fluttering, the visibly damaged.

During the day, he would take them to Peliconi Park, and a small clearing hidden from the road where he would unroll the foam pad he kept tied in the trunk. At night, the Buick was their bedroom in one of the cul de sacs or giant shadowy parking lots Cyril favored. A very few complained that he was cheap, those who hoped for their kickback from the Hotsheets Motels of the neighborhood. He told them he hated Landlords, on principle; if they complained enough or even agreed about Landlords he would add a few dollars to the tab, on principle.

Then, a miracle. His landlady in the front duplex, the relentless Mrs. Kessler, suffered a series of small strokes. That was Cyril’s guess, it might be Alzheimer’s, but the shift was sudden. Cyril became aware of the changes when he was collecting his newspaper and Mrs. Kessler, from her kitchen window, said what sounded like Good Morning and then smiled at him, the first smile he had seen on her face in the two years he had lived there.

She began overfeeding her cat, to the point the creature could scarcely waddle. The cat food tins overflowed the trash barrel and raccoons arrived nightly to snack on the largesse.

The woman was clearly fuddled, but not in any dangerous way. She managed. Most importantly, Mrs. Kessler ceased asking for the rent and Cyril stopped paying it. She also stopped monitoring his behavior. Previously, his step on the walk meant her stern face over folded arms, a skull and cross bones flying in that front window. Once she saw he had no company, she would turn away.

Now Mrs. Kessler wandered her rooms in cheerful disarray, sometimes vacuuming, washing or cooking after midnight, never minding him. Cyril began bringing women home.

It was a voluptuous time. Sometimes he was so drunk that not much happened, sometimes the women were so high that the rites turned strange and vivid. He cherished the memory of Baby Doll, who trusted Cyril enough now to smoke crack in front of him. She was from Myrtle Beach, Georgia, the daughter and granddaughter of Army wives. “The first honest woman,” Baby Doll said, “in three generations.” She’d been one of the first whores he found, when he was so green that he attempted to give her pleasure, thumbing her clit while she rode him. “What are you doing?”, she said.

“I don’t mind if you enjoy yourself,” Cyril said. “But I don’t know you,” she said. Cyril understood this was a truth and that if he were ever to understand women, as much as any Irish man raised Catholic could, his education would begin there.

He had stopped seeing her for a time. She was too pretty and had a wise mouth. When she saw him on the street, and she taught the other whores to say it too, she would call out his mantra. “Forty bucks and I come twice.”

Now she was well worn by the street and would sometimes spend the night with Cyril, at no extra charge. On the night that he cherished, she arrived at his door with a black plastic bag of clothes, a clear zippered pouch crammed with makeup, a handled paper bag filled with shoes and aerosol cans of hair spray and balled in foil, stuffed in the toe of a single yellow pump, two large rocks of cocaine. He understood this to mean that she was no longer wasting money on rent. She offered him some of the crack and he turned her down as always. That was another thing she liked about him.

Baby Doll smoked her first rock and allowed him to pour her some ale, to temper the high. By two o’clock, she’d smoked a quarter of the second rock, firing her glass pipe until the bowl turned cherry, while her thin chest swelled with the smoke and her eyes bulged. Then Baby Doll turned bizarre. What stayed with him was that she seemed to have an idea in mind. He looked down to see her spraying Aqua Net hairspray on his cock. He’d answered the door in a tee shirt and socks but he’d forgotten until now that he was pantless. The cold sticky spray stung a little and the sharp odor of industrial alcohol filled his nose and watered his eyes. She sucked him hard and they fucked for the first time, with her groaning and hammering on his clenched buttocks with her tiny fists. When he asked about the hairspray, she said, “Nex’ time I’ll light your dick on fire and put it out with my pussy.”

The evening descended to mumbles and twitches and frantic searches for increasingly small shards of crack that had to be combed from the carpet.

He was awakened the next day by the afternoon light entering his wide open front door. Her clothes were gone and so were two books he’d been reading, one on the Peloponnesian wars, the other on the murder of Lorca, but the can of hairspray remained, set on a plate in the middle of the floor.

*

Two letters arrived, one inside the other. The first was from his mother in Ireland, that was folded inside the other from his former Principal at Saint Patrick’s, Brother Malachy.

His mother was distraught. Where are you? she wrote, in her crabbed and perfect hand, the craft of long dead nuns. Have you left the order? My last letter was returned to me. They said you were not known at that address.” She went on to say she loved him and would respect any decision he had made and then wrote another two pages explaining what a mistake it would be to leave the church and why he wouldn’t be forgiven at home and why she couldn’t tell anyone or now even make a Good Confession.

When he’d left the order, two years before, he’d reached an understanding with Brother Malachy. “She’s an old woman,” Cyril told him. “The news might kill her. At the least, it would make her last days miserable. There’s a continent and an ocean between us and she has never left County Clare in her lifetime. She would never find out unless we tell her.”

Brother Malachy had asked, “Then you don’t plan to visit home?” When Cyril admitted that no, he had no plans to see Ireland, Malachy agreed. Cyril understood that Malachy had hopes for his return, he had been a favorite. For the next two years Malachy had forwarded Mother Cleary’s letters to Cyril and Cyril had written faithfully back, about how well the school was doing, of his hopes for the basketball team, the praise he’d received from the principal, and Bishop Manning’s visit to consecrate the new school chapel.

Brother Malachy’s letter explained what had happened. I am sorry to tell you that while I was away to Saint Catherine’s on a retreat, a letter arrived from your mother. I am afraid that Brother Clement seized the opportunity. I believe that he refused to accept the letter from the postman and indicated you no longer live here. Your mother has written to me and asked if this is true. I think we must talk. Please call me and we shall make an appointment.

Cyril put down the letter. That lickspittle wormy shite, Clement. Of course it was and of course he did. He’d hated Cyril since that pugilistic embarrassment in the seminary. Two teeth and the broken nose. Improved his horse face. And when Cyril had left, the Bastard had the temerity to say he would pray for him.

*

Cyril rang the rectory doorbell and listened to the chimes. It was strange standing before a door he’d always walked through. He waited in the dim entry, watching moths bat against the overhead light. Brother Malachy opened the door and greeted Cyril warmly, with an embrace and kiss to the cheek. It was just eight o’clock, the time Cyril had requested because he wished to appear employed. He had prepared carefully, his good suit, close shave and fresh haircut. He had eaten an early dinner and he had not drunk at all that day, only a Guinness.

Brother Malachy had a fire crackling against the cool evening in the snug common room and he uncorked the Jameson and poured them both a dollop. They tossed those off, ceremonially, and Malachy spilled larger measures and they sat comfortably in the green velveteen chairs cocked toward the fire. Cyril could see that Malachy was alight with enthusiasm, which was a worry.

Malachy lifted his glass so the firelight caught it. “Better Days,” he said. “I’ve been thinking on this. Your dear mother and the situation. I have to ask first, are you happy in your work?”

Warily, Cyril approached the topic, “It suits.” He saw Malachy was studying his face. “It’s steady.” Clearly, that wasn’t enough. “They’re good books. Definitive.” An eyebrow arched in response. “You’re no longer selling the Vacuum machines, then?”

“No,” Cyril said, “Encyclopedias. Britannica. The best in the field.”

Malachy sipped. “Selling the store of the world’s knowledge. You’re still an educator, then.”

“It’s a job,” Cyril said, “Not a calling.”

Malachy pounced. “Here’s what I’ll propose. We’re losing Brother Robert. He’s inherited a house and his father’s stable and is going home. History, Senior English, Honors English, Latin and Spanish, that’s his schedule. You’ve taught all but the History before. I’m not asking you to rejoin the order. We would bring you back as a Lay teacher. It would be good to have you back. Good for you too, I think.”

Cyril put down his drink. “I can’t teach.”

Malachy leaned forward. “You were a great teacher. Of course you can teach. You’re saying you won’t teach.”

“No,” Cyril said, “I can’t teach.”

“Of course you can,” Malachy said, and Cyril remembered him, chewing on the debate team—Define your terms, Gentlemen. Clarity - “Why won’t you?”, Malachy said.

Cyril stood. “When you teach, you’re offering hope.”

“Hope ... possibilities, you offer the world,” Malachy said. “Sit back down. Finish your drink.”

“That means, the teacher has to draw from a store, that hope. Like Starbuck’s courage.” Cyril spoke carefully now, he felt his brogue returning, the urge to declaim, and checked it. “To teach, you have to have hope. I don’t have that.”

He turned away and walked for the door, knowing he was startling Malachy, who was disposed to gnaw on an idea. Malachy sent up his last rocket. “What shall I tell your Mother?”

“Tell her what you like,” Cyril said, “and don’t send me the auld bitche’s letters.” He couldn’t help the brogue. The door clicked shut behind him and as he walked to his gleaming Buick, washed yesterday for the first time that year, he caught a flicker of movement behind the firelit window. There was the smash of a glass and then Malachy’s furious voice. “Blooody lunatics. Bloody Romantics! Goddamn Irish!”

*

Cyril searched for Baby Doll. On San Fernando Road, York Avenue and Eagle Rock Boulevard, amongst the forced gaiety of rival car lots with their overhead lines of twirling propellers and streaming tinsel where she had perched herself on hoods and fenders, behind the Taco Trucks that provided cover and late night drunken customers, at all the select bus benches at prominent intersections where she had crossed and recrossed her legs with each orange and red light, Cyril looked for Baby Doll and asked after her among the working girls. It had been almost two weeks since she’d left him her hairspray, and he hadn’t found her again.

At Baby Doll’s favored corner of Eagle Rock Boulevard and Fletcher, at a bus bench that had once been her staked territory, Cyril shared the fresh cheese pupusas he had brought and talked to two Salvadorean whores, Esperanza and Marisol.

He’d known them both for more than a year and had watched them evolve from skinny scared new girls to doughy Veteranas. He hired them when there was no one interesting around and he was ready to settle for a business transaction. They were businesswomen. Neither drank nor drugged. Both were building houses back in El Salvador and carried photos of their construction. Marisol’s was a two story cinderblock with so many arched windows it looked like an arcade. Marisol was the designer, her brother-in-law was the carpenter and he built the whims she sketched and paid for. Stucco and paint had been applied in the most recent photos and the house now looked like a pink and white frosted cake, with cracks and fissures already visible in the swirled creamy surface.

Passing the photos back, Cyril asked about Baby Doll. The two women looked at each other. Marisol sat down on the bus bench. “She sleeping,” Esperanza said.

“Sleeping?,” Cyril said. Marisol pressed her hands together, tilted and rested her head against them as though they were a pillow, and closed her eyes. “Baby Doll sleeping,” she said.

He asked them again in Spanish and Marisol repeated her tableau, eyelids fluttering, her face softening into repose. “Ella esta sueño,” Esperanza whispered, and Cyril finally understood they were telling him Baby Doll was dead, in a way that spoke no ill of the dead nor drew any bad luck to their lives.

*

Cyril brought home a woman he hadn’t seen on the boulevard before. She was sitting on the bus bench at the corner of Fletcher and San Fernando. It was after two, he was drunk and had been thrown out of the Tiki Ti for presumption. He needed a small victory. He asked if she wanted a ride. She seemed slightly dazed and took a long time to respond. “I guess,” she said and he leaned to push open the door. It wasn’t until she was in the car that he realized she wasn’t wearing shoes.

She had a sweet, round agreeable face and that seemed to be her nature as well. She said her name was Dawn, though later she would remember it was Debi with an i.

Back at the house, Mrs. Kessler was seated at her dining room table, stirring something in a metal bowl. Her huge marmalade cat was on the table, his nose at the rim of the bowl, eyes following her fist and the wooden spoon. Behind them, Mrs. Kessler’s old upright vacuum cleaner howled.

Once in the door at his place, Cyril offered Dawn a drink. “I’d like some water,” she said. “Please.” She drank it down and began to take her clothes off. She was wearing an oversize dark navy wrap dress and that was all she was wearing. She rolled the dress, put it on the floor for a pillow and then laid back flat on the rug. Her hands grasped her knees and she opened her legs.

Cyril stared at the upraised soles of her feet. They were black and crusted. She lay there, legs open, eyes closed, face in repose. A still life, behind her a spilled pile of library books, on the dresser scattered change and two empties of Rainier Ale, a folded paper plate, a box of chicken bones and his unmade bed, covered with unpacked laundry in blue paper and the week’s newspapers.

Drunk as he was, he understood he had reached bottom. He hadn’t thought there was one, not for him. It was her meekness, he thought. He touched the blackened sole of her left foot. “Never mind,” Cyril said. It was like touching a lump of coal. “I’ll still give you the money.” She lowered her free leg, her eyes remained closed. He held her foot and studied the cracked and riven sole, then thumbed it. A loamy odor reached him.

The word came to him, discalced, from the Latin, dis-without calceus-shoe, the discalced Carmelites, the discalced Franciscans. The barefoot Saints, Francis and Clare. “Discalced Dawn,” Cyril said. Her eyes opened then. “It’s Debi,” she said, “with an i. I thought you might be a cop.”

He got her to accept a pair of his sweat socks and old tennis shoes, but she wouldn’t put them on. She set them down on the bus bench, when they reached it, and sat beside them. He gave Debi the money, though he knew he didn’t need to. She folded her fingers over the bills when he pressed them on her palm, but she never looked at them.

Cyril slowly circled the block in his Buick, sipping at his last bit of whisky. The third time round she was gone and the socks were gone but the shoes remained. Cyril left them there and drove to Saint Patrick’s.

*

Brother Malachy sat up and looked at his bedside clock, it was just after 4:30, still dark out. The house was still and there was nothing troubling him. He wondered why he was awake.

From the train yards across San Fernando road came the idling murmur and then the strain of switch engines, distant whistles and horns, but these noises had never wakened him, if anything they soothed him, kept him asleep.

He went to the dining room window. A light burned at the school, the fifth floor. Malachy slipped on his cassock and shoes. He took up the knobbed ceremonial shillelagh.

The school was open, a key still in the front door lock. Malachy crept up the stairs, avoiding the noise and warning of the elevator.

The light was from the chapel. Its doors were thrown open, lights shone down on the empty pews and the altar blazed with candles. The altar rail gates were open, and face down, just outside the breach, was Cyril. His bare feet gleamed. Malachy’s heart lurched.

Malachy leaned the shillelagh against the doorway. He dipped his hand in the holy water font, crossed himself and then genuflected toward the tabernacle. He walked processionally down the middle aisle. As he approached Cyril he could see the rise and fall of his breathing and then heard the light snoring. Malachy’s shoulders lowered and he nodded his head in thanks.

The placement and attitude of Cyril’s body was familiar to Malachy, to anyone who had been ordained. His body flattened, his arms outflung in the shape of the Cross, Cyril was prostrated. It was the last posture of the novice, before approaching the altar to make his vows.

Malachy gathered Cyril’s brown moccasins and tan socks. He rolled the socks and tucked them in the shoes. Malachy set the shoes down on the carpeted step outside the altar rail and knelt beside them.