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Lyle’s mother, Sylvia, is a beautiful woman who was raised Pentecostal and rebelled against her mother through sexuality—but her dreams to become Miss America were dashed by her mother in a particularly traumatic way, and Lyle’s father (Lyle the First, a dashing cowboy), who consoled her in her time of need, left her when she became pregnant, leaving only money for an abortion Sylvia never got. Sylvia never talks about her own childhood or Lyle I, and takes refuge in alcohol; an entertaining Chicana Catholic kook named Clarita, given to religious visions and wacky pronouncements, helps Sylvia raise Lyle. Despite his unusual circumstances, Lyle has a sunny disposition. Like his father, Lyle is given to wearing cowboy boots and other Western attire, and often has to explain to people that he’s never actually ridden a horse.
Things come to a head when Lyle reaches sexual maturity and falls in love with a girl in his school—a beautiful young Chicana named Maria. Unfortunately, Maria’s father Armando was one of Sylvia’s boyfriends and thinks he is Lyle’s father. Sylvia, out of vague sexual possessiveness toward her son, colludes with Armando to keep them apart, though she knows in her heart Lyle I is the father. The Pentecostals who fought to keep Sylvia in the fold all those years ago come back to town and, desperate, Sylvia takes Lyle to a tent revival. She quickly comes to her senses and realizes she has no place there, but they are already smitten with Lyle’s amazing good looks, beautiful guitar-playing and singing, and natural charisma. They begin to recruit him to come to Los Angeles to join their Pentecostal televangelism empire.
Alienated from Maria and fed up with his mother, Lyle decides it’s time for him to strike out on his own, so he follows “Brother Bud and Sister Sis” to L.A. A black woman named Matilda of the Golden Voice, now alienated from Bud and Sis, encourages his musical gift but warns him obliquely not to trust Bud and Sis. Quickly Bud and Sis begin grooming Lyle as the newest Christian star sensation, dubbing him “The Lord’s Cowboy.”
Meanwhile, a desperate and vain B-movie actress named Tarah Worth is angling to make a comeback. She hears she is up for the role of Helen Lawson (the older, washed-up actress character) in a sequel to Valley of the Dolls. Shortly after arriving in town, Lyle has taken a job working at a party at the Playboy Mansion, and saves Miss Millennium (a Playmate) from a feral peacock. He becomes known around L.A. as the “Mystery Cowboy” and Tarah hatches a plan in which Lyle will be framed for kidnapping her, that she feels will assure her the Valley of the Dolls role.
One of Lyle’s friends from Texas, a gay kid named Raul, shows up in L.A. Bud and Sis are none too thrilled that their charge is trusting his gay friends and Sister Matilda over them, and he breaks from them on-air during their televangelist show—which they play off as demonic possession. Lyle attempts to keep Raul from getting bilked by sketchy pornographers, and to otherwise protect him from the seedier elements preying on gay street kids in L.A. Maria shows up in town to announce that she still loves Lyle, sleep with him one last time, and then inform him she’s marrying a business contact of her father’s for money. Lyle feels betrayed and tells her he never wants to speak to her again.
Most dramatically, Lyle finally meets his father. Having been told he’s an abandoning son-of-a-bitch his entire life, he’s very angry and hostile but there is some closure and a hint of rapprochement. He also learns from a letter from Clarita that his mother’s difficult life is over, and gains some insight into her childhood. The end comes when he re-encounters Sister Matilda, now preaching on the street comparing her father’s lynching to the Crucifixion, and takes her to lunch at Musso & Frank’s. Feeling a sense of great tragedy and change, he takes off his clothes and, on a busy street in L.A., does the preacher strut and sings “Amazing Grace” as a tribute to his mother, jeered by passersby.
Lyle Clemens is delivered, alive; how he came to be born. The horror at the Miss Rio Escondido Beauty Pageant recalled briefly.
When Lyle Clemens was born, in Rio Escondido, Texas, in 1984, his mother quickly covered his rosy nakedness just before she fainted, either from the rigors of the birth or from her first impression of the child. Sylvia Love was surprised that he was alive, thinking he'd died inside her. That's what Clarita, her trusted Mexican friend and self-appointed midwife, had told her after having listened for any stirrings within Sylvia's belly. So when Clarita pulled out the bawling child, and snipped the binding cord, she shoved him back at Sylvia in bewilderment that her powers of divination had failed again. Sylvia Love blinked in double surprise. Not only was the child alive and yelling lustily, but-she would swear she saw this during the fluttering of her eyes-he was big, brawly, and aroused-"just like his goddamn father, and no doubt he's his," she managed to say aloud. That, and a fleeting memory of her disastrous experience as a contestant in the Miss Alamito County Beauty Pageant earlier that year, caused her to toss a sheet over the child who would grow up to become the Mystery Cowboy who appeared naked along Hollywood Boulevard.
A view of Rio Escondido, where it all began.
The City of Rio Escondido-which means "hidden river" in Spanish-was not unlike other smallish cities that sprout within the environs of larger ones in Texas, cities that stay in a limbo of time at least ten years behind all others. The city boasted a population of "nearly 20,000"-a figure that did not include the seasonal migrants who worked and lived in the fertile fields outside the City. The permanent population was made up of mostly middle-class white people, middle to lower-class Mexican-Americans, some much better off, and a few rich white families with farms or ranches in what was referred to as the "Valley," its denizens called cowboys, whether they rode a horse or not, and most did not.
Oleander shrubs, white, pink, red, with sparkling green leaves, added to the prettiness of the City with its tidy neighborhoods and small shopping center that outlined an old plaza-no building taller than three stories. No one was sure whether the hidden river-the Rio Grande-had ever really run here, but in the Valley a strait of luxuriant green trees dotted seasonally with flowers indicated where it might have flowed. There was a main library, a City Hall that was once a jail, four movie theaters, three grammar schools, one high school, two Catholic churches and four Protestant ones, and a Billy the Kid Museum that housed Western artifacts, including a hat that Bonnie had worn (with a band of artificial daisies Clyde had woven onto it), and a Texas history book open to a page with umber spatters-the blood of a former sheriff shot while he sat reading the Bible.
"Ain't no discrimination in Ree-oh Escon-dee-doe," the cheerful, rotund Mayor Gonzales was fond of saying at Chamber of Commerce meetings. That always got approving applause. Mayor Gonzales had inexplicably developed a Texas drawl; but to show his pride in his Latino roots, he sported a full, brushy black mustache that evoked Mexican rebels of the past.
A grand hotel, aptly named the Texas Grand Hotel, continued to assert a stubborn pride in its Spanish terra cotta architecture and its ornate dining room. Bonnie and Clyde stayed there one night-"before their bloodiest raid." So did Judy Garland and Clark Gable-"separately"-on their way to the mineral springs in the nearby City of Mineral Wells. The hotel remained almost guestless now, new travelers choosing to stay in one of several motels that border the main highway with sizzling electric signs.
During two occasions, the Texas Grand sprang to full life-when its chandeliered dining room was taken over for "big weddings" and when its rooms were occupied by evangelical preachers here for the twice-a-year Gathering of Souls, a loud, quivery orgy of sermons and healings held at the local Pentecostal Hall and later televised through a mega-network of stations headquartered at the Lord's Headquarters in Anaheim, California.
A move back in time, before Lyle's birth. Eulah Love prepares to speak in tongues, and a golden voice arouses hope.
Lyle Clemens's journey to become the Mystery Cowboy who appeared naked on Hollywood Boulevard might be said to have begun years before his birth, perhaps during a certain time of the year when Eulah Love, Sylvia's mother, prepared to speak in tongues at the Gathering of Souls. An isolated unhappy woman with no friends, often glowering at her daughter as if she did not recognize her but was nevertheless angry at her, Eulah left her small house only to attend religious meetings, and when otherwise necessary. As if to underscore her drab existence, dry vines drooped over her house-a cluster of feeble green here and there struggling out-only in summer-in contrast to the tidiness of other houses nearby.
Why her mother was so hostile to her was a mystery to Sylvia from as far back as she could remember. Even an ordinary child's question would arouse her ire.
"Why did you name me Sylvia?"
"Because it's a name."
"Why is our last name Love?"
"Ha!" Eulah laughed without mirth.
Eulah's revival meetings terrified Sylvia and had made her wonder, at a very early age, what kind of God would inspire such frightening shrieks and trembling. At the height of the frenzy in the Pentecostal Hall (Eulah dragged her there, clasping her arm fiercely), she would find refuge under the rows of seats. When someone spotted her, she would tremble and moan, pretending she had been "slain in the spirit" that was, somewhere in the hall, seizing her mother and so many others and causing them to shake, mumble, and quake. That was something else that baffled Sylvia about God; if her mother was the saintly woman she claimed to be-and that's what they all said at the Hall, that she was a servant of God-how the hell could she be so goddamn mean?
There was one time when Sylvia came out of hiding in the Hall. A beautiful voice emerged out of the cacophony of crashing "hallelujahs" and "amens," a voice so commanding that the shrieking of the incensed congregation began to fade, then faded, forced back, driven away by the power of that single voice.
On the stage, Sister Matilda of the Golden Voice, a hefty black woman in a flowing white gown and wearing a brilliant crown atop her glistening black hair, was singing before a choir of trilling "little angels" in puffy cassocks. Her eyes were closed, her hands reached up toward Heaven. They did not grasp like those of the others here who seemed to Sylvia to be wanting to tear down something; no, her hands seemed to be encouraging, greeting, welcoming a benign connection. And she sang in a thrilling voice that roamed through sorrow-deep, mournful-delivered sorrow to hope, stayed there lingering, and then released hope to joy. The voice rose, finally jubilant, in amazement at such a possibility:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I'm found, Was blind but now I see....
As Sylvia listened to the wondrous voice, she clasped in her mind words and phrases that addressed her: "lost ... now found ... my fears relieved ... hope ... a life of joy and peace."
She held her breath. The song offered hope!
After the meeting (and she hid again because the chorus had retreated to allow on stage a man who moved like a mad puppet, strutting back and forth across the stage, then taking mincy steps backward as he howled, "Woe-uh!"), the words of the song the black woman had sung stayed in Sylvia's mind. Long before she knew they had, she had memorized them. The hope that the song-and the golden voice itself-conveyed allowed her to conceive of escaping the miserable life her mother was assuring for her.
Sylvia's aspirations for a happy life. A way out.
She would not live in misery!
What had saved her, so far, from being the strange, twitchy, retiring girl her mother was determined to make her was that she was pretty, very pretty-eventually, she was sure, she'd be beautiful-and she had spirit, and determination, even before she recognized the fact.
At almost eighteen, she was so lovely that, often, looking at herself in the mirror-her hands propping her splendid breasts-she would whirl around with the sheer joy of being herself. Her dark auburn hair had golden streaks where the sun had kissed it, and she had almond-shaped, amber-flecked green eyes that Eulah insisted were "ordinary brown."
During summer, her velvety complexion deepened, darker than it really was, and her full red lips had a sensual tilt even when she wasn't smiling.
And her body!
It was slender where it should be slender, and full, quite full, where it should be full. She walked with a slight swing that showed it all off.
All she needed to be free was to separate herself from Eulah and her denouncements of the flesh. How?
She was pretty enough, now, to be Miss Rio Escondido!
Then Miss Alamito County!
After that, Miss Texas!
And then! And then ...
... her freedom!
She easily pictured herself walking along the magical extension of stage (was it really sprinkled with silver sequins, or did she only remember it that way from the images she had seen on the small television kept secretly in her room?), holding her bouquet of roses, the crown firmly on her head-not tilted-and she would not be crying-why, if she was happy?
Her mind spun with the possibilities life would extend to her away from the miseries of her mother. Before the mirror, she lowered the top of her blouse, off her shoulders, deeper down. She hugged her gorgeous curves, the bare flesh of her lovely shoulders.
"Posing like a harlot in the mirror! Woman of sin!" It was Eulah, out of her usual religious trance and in Sylvia's room, (which she regularly invaded, often cornering the girl, demanding she confess "all sinful thoughts of the flesh" before Sylvia knew exactly what that meant). Now Eulah held her Bible before her like a black brick she might throw. "Woe on those who violate the sanctity of their flesh! Woe to those who sully it with lewd displays!"
Sylvia pulled the top of her blouse up.
Eulah was on her, flailing at her with her free hand, thrusting out with her Bible, forcing Sylvia back, back. "'I shall strike out in fury at your sins!' saith the righteous Lord." As Sylvia recoiled from her mother, Eulah Love yanked her Bible back, as if her daughter might snatch it away from her. She shouted: "Wanke y-hune epistrog! Mastek!" "What?" But Sylvia knew her mother had lapsed into tongues, her eyes wobbling in their sockets. Now she would return to her room to prepare for her performance at the Gathering of Souls.
When Eulah left, Sylvia drew her blouse back down, even lower. She would not allow Eulah to smirch her flesh! When she won the beauty contest, and, even before that, when she appeared in her bathing suit, the applause and admiration that would greet her would be like collected blessings thrust against Eulah's prohibitions.
She faced herself haughtily in the mirror-though she must not appear haughty when the title was announced and her bright future began, as bright and unblemished as the crown she would wear.
Possible intrusions on the way to the pageant.
There were negative considerations to take into account as the time for the preliminary pageants neared. Sometimes she suspected she was part Mexican. In her religious frenzies, Eulah had once blurted out "damnation on that Mexican who lured me." Was he her father? Sylvia wondered, studying her own tan-hued skin-Eulah always looked pale. If so, was he responsible for her mother's anger at her? She would welcome being part Mexican because she had heard someone at school claim "mixed blood," and that had seemed very dramatic to her, passionate blood whirling inside her. Or was her father really the "righteous man" Eulah claimed had been "murdered by those heathens, those ungrateful Vietnamese"? Sylvia remembered no man, not even a picture of one, during her early years. Still, if she was part Mexican and it was known, that might compromise her chances among still-bigoted judges at the Pageant.
The fact that she might be pregnant wouldn't help, either.
Further back in time. The "sexy Chicano" introduces Sylvia to the Catholic church and its glamorous saints.
Sylvia had met Armando in high school when her dream of winning the beauty title was beginning to bud. Everyone-especially giggly girls-agreed that he was the handsomest boy-and a "rebel." Athletic-looking with wiry muscles, he nevertheless disdained school sports, "because I'm not a team kind of guy, ya know?" He did, though, like to toss a basketball around by himself in an outdoor court when girls sat in the bleachers. Shirtless, he would whip about, bounce the ball steadily-tap, tap, tap!-and then, in a sudden leap, pitch it expertly through the rim-swoosh!-leaving his arm up, holding the pose for seconds after the ball was tossed, glancing at the girls and then spreading his lips in a smile that revealed his white teeth, which, uncannily, always caught a glint of sun. Adding to his romantic reputation was the fact that he insisted on calling himself "Chicano" and addressed other Latino boys as "vatos locos," a phrase young men in large cities were using to acknowledge "wild gang brothers." But there were no gangs in Rio Escondido, not even in Alamito County, and, really, he was not particularly "wild." He held a job as a mail boy in a legal office. He owned a car, not last year's nor the year before's, but not bad. His father was a family doctor and his mother had joined the PTA years ago-but, he claimed, proudly, some of his distant relatives still worked "in the sweaty migrant fields."
"You know why I'm going to ask you out?" he asked Sylvia as she left the school grounds one day and he was leaning against his car, one leg crooked on its fender.
"Why?" Others, several, had asked her out, but she had not considered them "matured" enough for her, and, too-perhaps more importantly-she was afraid of Eulah's certain intervention if they came to pick her up. The fact that Armando was known as a rebel, the way she secretly saw herself, impressed her.
"Because"-he did not remove his foot from his fender-"you're the prettiest girl, and I'm-" Instead of finishing, he flashed a dazzling smile.
"-and I'm-?" This time it was a question that required an answer. He waited longer.
What did he want her to say? Sylvia shook her head.
Excerpted from The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens by John Rechy Copyright © 2003 by John Rechy. Excerpted by permission.
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