Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens

by John Rechy

“A potent compound of both sex and rapture. . . . This remarkable story, as Rechy tells it, is sly, smart, sexy and laugh-out-loud funny, but it is also tinged with sorrow and ultimately elevated into the realm of magic.” —Jonathan Kirsch, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 352
  • Publication Date December 08, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4166-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

Now in paperback, the latest novel from the internationally renowned novelist recently described by Gore Vidal as “one of the few original writers of the last century” is a riotous bildungsroman that pays homage to the classic eighteenth-century picaresque.

Loosely inspired by Fielding’s Tom Jones, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens follows the journey of handsome Lyle Clemens as he travels through the religious fundamentalist world of Texas to the gambling palaces of Las Vegas and the enticing traps of Los Angeles’s mythologies.

As Lyle approaches adulthood, everyone wants him to be something he’s not. His beautiful mother wants to make him into a reflection of the cowboy who abandoned her; a group of avaricious fundamentalists plot to convert him into “the Lord’s Cowboy” to rouse their televangelical empire to new frenzied heights; and the lovely Maria wants him to fulfill her varying fantasies of “true love.” When Lyle leaves home to make his own destiny, he encounters a gallery of charlatans and wistful souls, quirky gamblers, aging starlets, and wily pornographers.

The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens is a hilarious, bittersweet, and wise book that establishes once again John Rechy’s great storytelling gifts.

Tags Literary


“Rechy tells a funny, sexy, far-fetched coming-of-age story. . . . Lyle Clemens is considerably lighter than Rechy’s earlier novels. In true picaresque style, people appear and things happen that seem like magical coincidences. . . . Rechy contrasts the pious hypocrisy of true believers with the redemptive grace of genuine compassion—a subject that continues to fascinate him. . . . A John Rechy book wouldn’t be complete without graphic sexual scenes, but these are never gratuitous.” —John-Manuel Andriote, The Washington Post and author of Victory Deferred and Hot Stuff

“Rechy tells a funny, sexy, far-fetched coming-of-age story. . . . In true picaresque style, people appear and things happen that seem like magical coincidences. . . . Rechy contrasts the pious hypocrisy of true believers with the redemptive grace of genuine compassion–a subject that continues to fascinate him.” —The Washington Post

“A potent compound of both sex and rapture. . . . This remarkable story, as Rechy tells it, is sly, smart, sexy and laugh-out-loud funny, but it is also tinged with sorrow and ultimately elevated into the realm of magic.” —Jonathan Kirsch, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

“The touching ending to The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens is a perfect finish to an outrageously funny sequence of plot twists that draw the reader into a satirical study of humanity as public performance. Comic and complex, Rechy’s novel is a veritable handbook for survival in the contemporary age of sociopolitical masquerades and illusions.” —Rigoberto Gonzalez, El Paso Times

“[The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens] has the sweep of a sexy, modern fable for adults. . . . Rechy portrays Lyle as a succulent scrap of meat, dodging the traps set by a ravenous town hungry to eat and discard.” —Charles Casillo, The Los Angeles Times

“As always, Rechy uses his talent to illuminate the lives of those who cannot speak for themselves. The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens is an excellent work that presents Rechy at his height as a writer and narrator.” —Jim Przepasniak, El Paso Times

“Rechy’s humor is mostly subtle and mocking. . . . The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens is a cleaver conceit. . .about a youth trying to discover who he really is, and perpetually confused by what other people want him to be.” —J.S. Hall, The Washington Blade

“Sprawling, sweet-tempered. . . . A riotously picaresque philosophical satire that pays homage to, and reinvents, Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones.” —Richard Labonte, Outlook

“It’s a romp with no slow-down throughout. . . . It’s very funny and wise at the same time.” —Rainbo Reviews

“[An] ambitious and very funny novel . . . It’s a tall tale, a simultaneously sweet and vicious satire of contemporary America . . . This distinctly American novel is ultimately about the search for love and redemption, about the ideal of ‘amazing grace’ from the old song that serves as a touchstone for Lyle. It’s a comic tour de force and, at the same time, a truly heartfelt book.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Picaresque. . . . This raucous, hormone-fueled Bildungsroman takes its hero through the tabloid underbelly of America as he seeks to find his father—and himself.” —Lawrence Rungren, Library Journal

Praise for John Rechy

“[Rechy’s] greatest achievements as a writer are found in his love for the mastery of the written word, his genius as a teller of tales.” —Jonathan Kirsch, Los Angeles Times Book Review

Praise for Outlaw: The Lives and Careers of John Rechy

“I was dazzled and captivated by this very daring book.” —Carolyn See

“It is an absolute joy to read Casillo’s telling of John Rechy’s complicated, aristocratic, and varied history. You must read this biography immediately.” —Gus Van Sant

“A most original biography of what, in retrospect, now seems to be on of the few original American writers of the last century.” —Gore Vidal


A Los Angeles Times Best of the Best Selection
A Los Angeles Times Best Seller


Book I

In which Lyle Clemens is born to Sylvia Love, and fate sets out on its wayward course.

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.

She waited.

“—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.

“—and I’m the handsomest guy, a handsome vato loco,” he finished, a hint of annoyance at her earlier befuddlement tempering his smile.


On their first outing, their last year of high school—she met him at a street corner, safe from Eulah—Armando took her to the Catholic Church of Our Mother of Perpetual Concern. At the door, he offered her his red-print bandanna to cover her head in the old tradition: “Women have to do this, men don’t.” Inside, he spattered holy water on his forehead and bowed reverentially in silent prayer.

Sylvia fell instantly in love with the paintings and statues surrounding her. Look at the bright colorful costumes and the thick makeup on the faces of the women! Despite the heavy clothing, it was clear they had curvaceous bodies. Glamorous enough to be—to be—in a beauty pageant! A tinge of rivalry made her add an extra swing to her hips as she moved to join Armando, slightly ahead of her and advancing toward the altar. So quiet here—they were the only ones in the church—so different from the rambunctious revival meetings, all screeches and distorted faces, that she was forced to attend with Eulah.

At the altar, Armando knelt in emphatic meditation, his head bowed almost to his chest. When she saw the almost-naked, muscular Christ before them, Sylvia uttered a gasp of admiration. That was when Armando, who had stood up so quickly she hadn’t been aware of it, put his hand about her shoulders and let it slip to her waist. “This is how we stand when we get married,” he whispered right into her ear.

After they left the church, Sylvia was still feeling reverential. She kept the red handkerchief as a band about her hair. She was still wearing it when, a short time later, in the remote thickly treed area that Armando drove his old car to, he kissed her, kisses that turned wet and that she found disgusting and then exciting—no, disgusting—no, exciting! When he touched her breasts, she tensed, and then allowed a pleasant sensation that soon became frightening.

“I have to go home right away!” she said firmly.

He tried a few more kisses. For a moment they made her tingle, but apprehension was crowding out the excitement and she did not respond.

He hummed confidently as he drove her back to within three blocks of her house.

Sylvia walked bravely past Eulah’s glowering stare. She had taken a long step away from her mother.

Can virginity be lost twice? A welcome confusion of memories.

Throughout her life, in moments of confusion, Sylvia’s thoughts and memories would spring into her mind seemingly unconnected to anything present. This would occur when thoughts of the debacle at the Miss Alamito Beauty Pageant, and of the first Lyle Clemens’s perpetual arousal, would cause her to cover her newborn’s nakedness. So it was that a memory of Eulah encouraged her to lose her virginity to Armando.

He took her back to the Church of Our Mother of Perpetual Concern. Again, she was bedazzled by the glamorous statues, especially one who seemed very aware of her beauty, the way she held her hands to her breasts, the way she tilted her head, just so, the way she had attired herself.

“That’s our Holy Mother,” Armando introduced, “the Mother of Jesus, and that is our Jesus.” He pointed to the sinewy almost naked body on the cross, next to the beautiful woman. As Sylvia stared in awe from one to the other—Jesus, then Mary, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus—she felt Armando’s hand traveling down her back, onto her buttocks. He gave them a firm squeeze before she moved away.

“Do you know what we call nuns?” he asked her in an intimate whisper, his lips tickling her ear, or had his tongue dabbed them?

“Those women who wear wingy hats and black dresses?” She had seen some when they visited the city. Very strange.

“Yes. We call them the brides of Christ,” he told her. “Of him.” He pointed to the almost-nude figure.

“The brides of—?” She looked up at the body at the head of the ­altar. “His wives?”


“He is so handsome,” Sylvia sighed. “Just look at those ridges on his stomach.”

“Feel mine.”

Until he placed her hand on his own abdominals, Sylvia hadn’t realized that Armando had raised his shirt to allow her to touch his bare, tensed stomach. “Girls don’t have these,” he informed her, “but they have these,” and his fingers cupped her breasts. She didn’t push his hand away because she felt enraptured by the awesome atmosphere of the Catholic church, and her feelings had bunched into one that was exciting.

He drove her to the same spot they had gone to their first time out, off the main road, onto a dirt road, among clusters of trees and the sweet scents of orange blossoms.

He jumped out of the car, nodding at her to follow.

“Maybe this is where the hidden river ran,” he said to her. “Isn’t it romantic?”

It was, the thought of being out there, alone, where a river had once meandered, leaving smatterings of wild flowers and then disappearing. Oh, yes, that was romantic—and so were Armando’s hot tonguing kisses, so exciting. Were they? She tested, pushing back with her own tongue. She withdrew it. She wasn’t sure what she felt. She leaned back. His hand explored between her legs. She thought of closing them tight—yes!—but didn’t. She would allow this for only a few more moments. Longer? When he opened his pants and pointed his erect thing at her, she felt frightened and was about to pull away. Then it was that fragments of Eulah’s warnings against sins of the flesh raided her mind.

“Yea, ole Satan makes it feel good—so gooood,” Eulah quivered and moaned in Sylvia’s mind. “Lust! Wicked pleasures! Seduced flesh! Lust, flesh, pleasures, flesh, pleasure, pleasure . . . makes it feel so gooood–so goooood–so damned goooooood!

“How did it feel to lose your virginity to a Chicano vato like me?” Armando asked her afterwards, buckling his pants, giving his belt a flip of the tip.

She didn’t tell him that, yes, it felt good, especially because of Eulah’s words echoing encouragement. Nor did she tell him that she was considering becoming a Catholic as a result of their visits to the colorful church. Not a nun, no. Their drab garments would spook her. She could easily become, though, a devotee of the gorgeous virgin and the almost-naked man.

“Well?” he waited proudly for her answer.

“What?” She had forgotten what he had asked, so delirious had she become at the prospect of her newfound devotion, another step away from Eulah.

“I said, How did it feel to lose your virginity to a Chicano vato loco like me?” He frowned at her forgetfulness.

She remained silent, hoping that she was blushing, although she knew she wasn’t.

Another afternoon, among the same green cluster, it all felt even better to Sylvia Love when she lost her virginity again (again goaded by Eulah’s feverish warnings). That’s how Armando made her feel when, afterwards, as he shined the buckle of his belt with his spit-moistened handkerchief and gave the tip of his belt an extra flip before looping it, when he asked her, again, “How did it feel to lose your virginity to a Chicano vato loco?”

Her sassy spirit sparked. She heard herself answer him. “Wonderful. Did it feel wonderful for you, too—to lose your virginity to a white girl?”

He sulked all the way back to the city, where he dropped her off in the business section—farther than before. On her way home, Sylvia wondered what Armando’s reaction would have been if she had told him that she might be part Mexican herself.

When she passed Eulah and her Bible that had become an appendage, Sylvia allowed herself to pause triumphantly smiling near the woman who would soon have no power over her at all. None.

She remained friendly enough with Armando, talking at school, even flirting for others to see, but that was all. Soon, she saw him in his car with one of the blonde girls who had once called out to him, “Hey, sexy Chicano.” He coughed and coughed to call attention to the fact.

She didn’t have to pretend she didn’t care. She was too young—and he was too silly—to carry on seriously with anyone. Besides, her goal of winning the beauty title occupied her increasingly. She began to walk as if she was carrying a book on her head.

How Sylvia Love became Miss Rio Escondido. The full horror at the Miss Alamito Beauty Pageant.

It was by default that Sylvia became Miss Rio Escondido. No one else competed. She was sure the reason was that all the other girls, both the white ones and the Mexican Americans, knew she would triumph, hands-down, and so they had decided it was wiser not even to compete.

Another factor for the default might lie in the fact that in Rio Escondido, there were many Baptists, Catholics, and, of course, the Pentecostals–and they all variously denounced “sins of the flesh,” although it seemed to Sylvia that no one did so more passionately than her mother.

Mayor Gonzales, his face redder than usual, honored Sylvia with the beauty title during lunch in the best coffee shop in the City, The Lone Star Café. She didn’t mind being given the great title without fanfare—at this stage, anyway—because news of it might jolt Eulah out of her religious trance. The Mayor was proud to be seen with such a pretty girl, lowering his voice to whisper ordinary matters so that others in the café might suspect him of speaking intimacies. What he was telling her was that the City of Rio Escondido would proudly support all necessary expenses involved in her travel to the City of Lariat, Texas, where all contestants from the sprawling Alamito County would gather. He was so sure of the generous procedure—and no need for her to mention it to anyone else—no one—that he took money out of his wallet and presented it to her. She rewarded him with a spectacular smile and a kiss on the cheek.

“A kiss!” he exclaimed loudly for everyone to note. “This beautiful girl gave me a kiss!” After Sylvia left, he retained his hand on the exact place where she had kissed him, storing it.

When Sylvia missed her period, she decided that telling Armando, at least now, might complicate matters. Nothing would show before the crucial crowning.

The day before she would leave Rio Escondido to participate in the Miss Alamito County, she went early to the Catholic church. Her head covered with her own scarf this time, she knelt before her favorite statue, the most beautiful, the most alluring, the one who might, herself, be a candidate for the title of Miss America, the Most Holy Virgin Mother Mary, the mother of the sensational, almost-naked man on the cross.

“If I win Miss America”—she saw no reason to pray for the lesser title coming up—”I’ll place my crown at your feet,” she promised. She made a sign across her chest, the way Armando had. She rose—and then knelt hastily again and added, “And please don’t let me be pregnant.”

For years, Eulah had hounded Sylvia about attending “youth camp retreats.” That’s where she told her mother, who managed an approving nod without breaking her trance, that she would be going for the next few days.

Other contestants gathered for the Miss Alamito County Beauty Pageant at Lariat were atwitter with excitement when Sylvia joined them at the dusty motel where they stayed. She didn’t like the bouncy girls—not a single other Mexican American among them. All of them seemed to resemble each other, with stiff hairdos, most often blonde, and bright teeth, curvy bodies, permanent smiles, and real or pretended Texas drawls. Sylvia decided she would be more sophisticated than the others—friendly, yes, but aloof. “Just who do you think you are?” one of the giggly girls asked her. “I think I am Sylvia Love,” she answered, and truly felt that she was finally herself, now that she was so far away, in so many ways, from Eulah Love. At last!

One particular contestant, Miss Canutillo, annoyed her because she told all the girls that they were the prettiest and should win, probably because she had given up on the title herself and was hoping to be named Miss Congeniality. Still, there was much excitement in sitting around the motel pool and being ogled and snap shot by the local newspaper. There was the further excitement of being groomed, fitted, told how to walk—all this by an effeminate man and a masculine woman.

“Walk as if you’re carrying a book on your head,” the man instructed. “I already do,” Sylvia informed.

“The good Book, the Bible—that’s what I imagine I’m carrying on my head,” Miss Canutillo offered, “and the Lord will be our guide, God bless.”

Responding to a chill at the memory of Eulah in her vine-choked house thinking her daughter was at revival retreat camp, Sylvia Love did not even try to muffle a groan at Miss Canutillo’s sticky declamation, a loud groan which was rewarded with a throaty hoot from the masculine woman and a secret—to one side of his hip–thumbs-up from the man, and a puckered frown from Miss Canutillo.

“What will you do for your talent performance?” a severely serious older man wearing a red bow tie and writing on a pad asked Sylvia as she and the others stood on a small high-school stage.


“Yes. Exactly like for the Miss America Contest,” the man emphasized the importance of this phase, huffily. “Do you dance, act, sing? What?”

“I sing,” Sylvia said.

“What are you waiting for?”

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me . . .

It was her own voice! Her voice was singing the song the black woman had sung long ago, the song she had rehearsed so often in her mind.

I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see. . . .

In a sweet, lovely voice she sang the words, slowly, giving them her own meaning, making it her own song, tinged the words at first with the sadness of her past, and then with the hope of her future. The girls fluttering about her paused to listen.

“Good!” the stern man said.

The night of the pageant arrived, an appropriately starry Texas night when even the seasonal Texas wind was hushed in awe of the ­proceedings.

Then it was as if time had whipped itself up, existed only in flurries for Sylvia Love. During one of those flurries she was walking in her luminous white gown along the small stage—alone, all eyes on her!—nervous and praying that she wouldn’t perspire before the judges: two stern men and one smiling (at her? Sylvia wondered)—and one woman, all out of shape, seated in the front row of the full auditorium.

Another flurry! The interview! Miss Canutillo had just answered what she would ask for if she had three wishes: “That everyone heed the Lord’s word . . . To serve the Lord with my body and soul . . . To spread the Lord’s word.” Sylvia longed to elbow her when she walked past her as if she was hoping for a halo instead of a crown.

“And you, Miss Love, what would be your three wishes?”

“That there be no meanness in the world,” Sylvia answered without an intervening pause. She thought, But before that, I wish Eulah would stay out of my life!


She didn’t have to think; she said: “That no one would ever be mean to anyone.”

“And your third wish?”

Sylvia straightened up proudly and said, “That all meanness would vanish from the world”—and to herself she added: that Eulah would shut up and not push me around with her damn hideous Bible and that I’ll be free of her forever!

Another flurry—the talent phase. Although, the day before, she had managed to sing the wondrous song, she was certain that, this time, the borrowed words would stop flowing, turn into gasps, stick in her throat. She would have to spit them out. She closed her eyes and evoked the black woman who had sung the song that distant time, remembered how she had looked up, how she had held her hands, out, up. She did the same. Her voice became firmer, stronger, and soon she didn’t have to rely on the memory; the words of the song, propelled by hope, were coming from her, only her.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me. . . .

As she sang the words she cherished most—”My fears relieved . . . hope . . . a life of joy and peace,” her voice gained strength, and rose, firm, serene.

Applause! More than anyone else had received.

Another flurry—and she was waiting in the wings in her bathing suit, white so that her skin glowed golden.

“Miss Rio Escondido, Sylvia Love!” announced a slick dark-haired man. Feeling a series of trembles of ecstasy as she heard her name called out for the most important phase—yes, yes, yes, this was real, the beginning of a new life—Sylvia Love made her way past the twenty or so other contestants, including Miss Canutillo, who whispered, “Oh, you’re the prettiest, Miss El Rio, that’s why you’re going to win.”

Sylvia had taken only a few steps onto the stage when she heard a commotion behind her. She didn’t turn to look. That would compromise her walk before the panel of judges—had she heard a murmur of admiration when she appeared on the stage? She did not turn to look back even when she heard a terrifying voice screech:

“I command you in the Lord’s name to let me through!”

Sylvia had to glance back then, to make sure she was wrong, that the voice did not belong to—Eulah Love.

Eulah was scuffling offstage with the attendants, and with some of the heftier beauty contestants, who had joined spiritedly in trying to subdue the raging woman.

Walk faster? Run? Sylvia considered her dour choices. She stopped, frozen.

Wresting herself free of hands grabbing her, Eulah rushed onstage with her black Bible in one hand and an ominous white bundle in the other. “Woe to allow your body to be exposed!” she screamed at Sylvia. “Shame, shame, shame, shame on you, and shame on your exposed body, shame! This is my curse on you! Unhappiness will follow you, forever, for your sins!” Unfurled, the bundle she carried became a sheet, and she flung it over Sylvia, covering her.

Gasps from the audience, then scattered muffled bursts of laughter.

Trying to throw off the sheet, Sylvia shouted at the raging woman, “Get away from me, you awful woman!”

Titters and giggles erupted into more laughter, loud laughter, growing laughter.

Sylvia managed to thrust off the sheet, but it wrapped about her feet. When she attempted to resume her graceful walk—head up, shoulders squared, one foot before the other, not straight ahead—she stumbled, fell, heard new waves of uncontrolled laughter. She rose and tumbled down again, rose, and fell again, the sheet clinging to her feet, wrapping about her legs. Then she heard, like a knife slashing, the gleeful shriek of Miss Canutillo: “Hallelujah! The haughty bitch is out!”

Sylvia ran offstage doing what she had sworn she would never do at a beauty pageant. She cried.

The beginning of the aftermath.

How Eulah found out about the pageant, and how she managed to reach the site of the competition in time to do what she did, would remain a mystery to Sylvia, as would her mother.

Soon after, as she stood in front of the mirror admiring her gorgeous body, the memory of Eulah’s ranting made her turn away abruptly, and she pulled up her blouse to cover her breasts. No! She forced back her defiance and pride. She lowered her blouse, and she faced her reflection, boldly. So much for Eulah Love’s silly curse!