Shaky Town

Lou Mathews

August 23, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Lou Mathew's latest novel, Shaky Town, a novel of interconnected stories that explores the grievances and triumphs of working-class L.A. Mathews is the author of L.A. Breakdown and an instructor at UCLA Extension's Creative Writing program. He has received a Pushcart Prize, a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and an NEA Fiction Fellowship, and is the recipient of the UCLA Extension Outstanding Instructor Award.

I was talking to one of my constituents this morning, but he didn’t know it. George was his name, I didn’t learn that until later. He didn’t know he was a constituent, he didn’t know I was the Mayor, he didn’t know he was sitting in my office.

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He thought it was a bus bench, there at the corner of Fletcher Avenue and San Fernando Road. He didn’t even know he was a citizen of Shaky Town. He thought he lived in some city called Los Angeles. That’s where you reside, I told him. ¡You live in Shaky Town! Shaky Town is what goes on around you. It’s your neighborhood, your barrio, and that’s much more important than any imaginary city. He didn’t know what a barrio was.

He didn’t know he was a constituent, he didn’t know I was the Mayor, he didn’t know he was sitting in my office.

I looked at him, this well-dressed double-breasted man, classic in a charcoal stripe with a tie the color of the bleeding sacred candy apple heart, and I smiled. Buenos dias, I told him, Como esta? He said he didn’t speak Spanish.

I told him what I said was Good Morning and How are you? and I introduced myself, Emiliano Gomez, a sus ordenes—at your service—and you are? That was when I learned his name was George, George Thibodeaux, and his family was from New Orleans and he didn’t speak Spanish and he said he didn’t need to speak Spanish because he was a Black man. I said, Well, you’re a little darker than me, but not much, and you could be from Mexico. It was your mustache that fooled me, they grow them that way in Zacatecas. That exact style with the razor edge. And I told him, but you do speak Spanish. He said, No, I don’t. I said, But you do. That made him straighten his tie.

You know burrito. You know taco. Enchilada. Maybe even chile relleno. Or carnitas. He started to laugh. He said, That doesn’t count.

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I said, Don’t laugh. That’s part of the language. If you want to eat well, you learn the language. Why do you think the Spanish were conquered by the Mexicans? He picked up his briefcase then and looked at me like I was crazy. He said, What? That’s crazy. I said, But they were. You have to look at the final outcome. Not just one battle. I know. I’m a student of history.

Look at Napoleon, I told him. Napoleon used to say, An army travels on its stomach. He said that while his troops were eating their horses. But who could blame them? The Russians had no chiles.

And how much better are the Russians today for winning? There’s a better way to win. An army can be conquered by its stomach. It’s true. Look at Mexico and here.

In the United States, the native peoples, the ones we call Indians, were wiped out. Their lands were taken from them. They disappeared. How many Indians, among 250,000,000 people, are left? One percent? Maybe.

In Mexico, 95 percent of the population is still Indio or mixed blood. The Spanish got absorbed. The difference is the food. What did Estados Unidos Indians have to offer their conquerors? Fried bread and dried meat. Jerky. That was the peak of their cuisine. Good for rednecks maybe. Nobody else wanted to eat it. Also, because they had no chiles, they were susceptible to European diseases.

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You know burrito. You know taco. Enchilada. Maybe even chile relleno. Or carnitas. He started to laugh. He said, That doesn’t count.

In Mexico it was different. Those conquistadors, raised on bread and cheese and meat, saw for the first time mangoes, papaya, guavas, potatoes, tomatoes, avocados, bananas, pineapples, fruits that had no name, and thirty kinds of chiles. Monkeys threw mangoes at their helmets. There was corn, which no one could explain. They saw corn tortillas, enchiladas. ¡Tamales!

No one who has ever eaten a truly good tamale can be a conqueror. Those conquistadors were helpless. They had to marry those cooks instead of killing them. There was too much to lose. Even what they brought was improved. They brought wheat and beer. We made flour tortillas and better beer than anyone ever drank in Spain. You ever been there? The beer there is terrible. To this day. That’s why you can speak Spanish. So you can order a good Mexican beer, a Bohemia or a Carta Blanca. That’s Bowe-aye-mee-haa. Or Dos Equis, although with that one you can just hold up two Xs and they know. Stay away from Tecaté.

George held his hand up. He said, Are you a teacher? I said, No, I’m the Mayor, but I can tell when someone needs education. That made him straighten his tie again.

So the food is a start, I told him.

Where do you live? I asked. What is your street?

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Ahh, Salsipuedes Street. You prove my point.

Half the streets in L.A. are Spanish. Salsipuedes is actually three words. Sal Si Puedes. It means Get out if you can! I don’t know why they called your street that. In Mexico, they put that sign on the worst places.

You’re right. It is interesting. Only seven o’clock in the morning and already you’ve learned something. You could take the day off, que no?

That means Why not? It’s the second-most Mexican expression.

The first? Quien sabes? Quien sabes? That means Who knows? You have to say it with a shrug. You say it like a question, but it’s not really a question. Everybody knows that nobody knows. It’s telling God how small you are. The world laughs at you, you can’t laugh back—that might offend the world—but you can shrug your shoulders, maybe smile a little, and say, Quien sabes?

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George looked at me. He said, Like in The Lone Ranger?

No. No. That’s different. Tonto said, Kemo Sabe. I never thought about that before. Maybe that is the Indian version. He’s telling the Lone Ranger, Who knows? That would make sense.

I knew him. Jay Silverheels. Tonto. Jay Silverheels was his real name. He was a fine man. He always talked to me on the set. I worked in the movie business for twelve years. First Warner’s, then M.G.M. I was a carpenter. Breakaways were my specialty. Whenever you see John Wayne break a chair over someone’s head? I built that chair. Balsa wood, stained dark, all hand carved. You couldn’t put balsa in a lathe. When someone got thrown out of a window? I built that window. Balsa frames, sugar-glass panes. You’re right. It was a strange job. I was an artisan, I did beautiful work, so someone could break it. Twenty chairs, all exactly alike, because they might need twenty takes to get it right. You never knew. If Juan Grande Pendejo was hungover that day, or he didn’t like the other actor, he might break all twenty. The director would let him. Better to have Frankie Avalon crying than John Grande mad at you. How many Westerns was Frankie Avalon going to make? So another twenty chairs. That job did a funny thing to me. I never made any real furniture. Not for myself or for any of my family.

Then I lost these three fingers. Yeah, I saw you looking. All but the little one. I can still make the horns. No, it’s okay. You can ask. I cut them off. Two inches of white pine slat and three fingers of bone. I measured wrong. It was supposed to be three inches of pine and no fingers. The table saw didn’t care.

I was drunk. It couldn’t be helped. My oldest had died.

Carlos. Mi Carlitos. Ten years old, the polio. I stayed up all night drinking with the priest, Father McNulty. He didn’t have any answers. So I went to work. What else was there to do? Quien sabes, no? Pride can be a bad thing. It cost me that job, these fingers.

That’s not true. It’s true about the fingers, but Garcia cost me that job. The studio would have found something else for me. But Garcia, that Garcia, he had a boy he wanted to get into the union. That’s the one trouble with the movies. Everybody wants to get their kids in. So he told them I was drunk. They asked me, I couldn’t lie. Bang, out the door.

The insurance company, when they heard, they wouldn’t pay me. They sued me for the doctor and the hospital, too. Companies could do that stuff then.

So I was out the door. I had the disability, but it wasn’t good for me. It gave me too much time and money to drink. I got bitter. You do that when you have the time. It’s like actors. I was around them a lot. Actors are the best people in the world. As long as they’re working. When they aren’t working, they have time to think about the injustice of the world. Particularly where it concerns them. They go crazy. They should say, Quien sabes? But they don’t. I was like that. I turned my back on God. I thought, He’s turning his back to me, why shouldn’t I turn my back to him? We had a fine priest then, that one I mentioned, Father McNulty. He liked his whiskey, which is a good thing in a priest. But even Father McNulty couldn’t tell me why God would let Carlitos die.

My friend Esteban was wiser than God or Father McNulty then. At least, he knew what I needed. He got me on where he worked. The City of Beverly Hills, trash collecting. Twenty-eight years I worked there. I retired three years ago, and last year I decided to become Mayor. No, I know you didn’t vote. It was by acclamation. Everybody is allowed to vote in Shaky Town, even ghosts and the animals, too. All the animals voted for me, they still do, the roosters every morning, the birds all day, and the dogs and coyotes at night. Put your head outside sometime. You can hear them vote.

I’m talking too much. I’m sorry. You get caught up in your life, you think it should mean something to somebody else. You would rather know when your bus gets here, am I right?

You want downtown? You just missed the local. The express will be here in tres minutos. So you’re better off, you’ll beat the local by twenty minutes. The only disadvantage is me. And I can shut up. Thank you. You’re polite. You’re right, you have some time, I’ll tell you about it.

Twenty-eight years. It doesn’t seem so long to me. It was a good place to work, Beverly Hills. I showed up the first day wearing rubber gloves. Esteban was worried about my hand. So I wore rubber gloves, and I stuffed clay in the empty fingers. Nobody figured it out. For the first couple of years nobody knew they were missing.

One day on the route, I cut the glove on some sheet metal. They were doing some new air-conditioning on a house. I picked up the old ducts that they’d cut out, the edges were like razors. I couldn’t feel it when those fake fingers got snagged. One, two of them dropped off onto the sidewalk. I’ll never forget my partner. Ivory Eakins was his name. As nice a man as ever lived. He died eight years ago. Ivory dropped his can, looking at me, and let it roll into the street. His face turned gray and he said, Emiliano? Your hand! I looked down and I saw what he saw. Fingers rolling down the street. I shrugged. I said, We Mexicans are tough. Especially from Zacatecas. Then I sliced off the last fake finger on the metal, tossed it in the trash can, and Ivory fainted.

He didn’t forgive me for a long time, but it was still worth it. The word got around to the boss, but by then I’d proved I could do the job. Twenty-eight years. Goes by like your bus. You get on, you get off.

When I retired, I decided I should be the Mayor here because I have seniority. I moved here in 1922. I was five years old. Nobody else has lived here longer. Mrs. Espinosa will argue with you, but I can remember when she moved here. It was 1928. Before that she lived in Frogtown. She counts that, but Frogtown is across the tracks.

That doesn’t count. This is Shaky Town.


Excerpted from Shaky Town by Lou Mathews. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Prospect Park Books. Copyright © 2021 by Lou Mathews. 

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