Wifey Redux

by Kevin Barry, recommended by Graywolf Press

EDITOR’S NOTE BY ETHAN NOSOWSKY

DO NOT read the first sentence of “Wifey Redux” just yet — I don’t want to lose you. Because that’s the thing about a Kevin Barry story: you never have a chance to settle into your seat before rocketing off at high speed, destination unknown.

Empty Pockets

Barry is an astonishing stylist, but he’s also an excellent storyteller who never fails to entertain. And then there are the characters that populate his stories. He often writes about unreconstructable degenerates, and let us admit that he writes about them with unabashed love and admiration. Kidnappers, cynics, drug dealers, unrepentant alcoholics, self harmers, and a multitude of hopeless dreamers find a comfy home in his fiction.

“Wifey Redux,” however, is a domestic story. If you still haven’t peeked, here are the first words of the first irresistible six-line sentence: “This is the story of a happy marriage but…” A universe (and a lot of truth) lies in that “but.” The narrator next concedes that yeah yeah, he knows, no one wants to read about a happy marriage, and he promises some manner of unstated delinquency that will end with the police banging him against the hood of a squad car. It’s a go-for-broke gambit that had me hooked the first time I read it.

Among other things, this story comically exposes the conflict between our fetishization of youthful sexuality and our prudish hypocrisy about it once we become parents. In the second paragraph the narrator lasciviously describes his wife’s backside (when they were teenagers) at considerable length, and goes on to boast about their athletic antics in the early, horny years of their marriage. But when their daughter turns 17, the same age they were when they met, and becomes sexually active with a jockish type whom the narrator can’t abide, he becomes increasingly unhinged.

What I love about this story, aside from its broad comedy (the daughter and mother share identical lisps, which Barry has good fun with), is the way darkness subtly but surely expresses itself despite the narrator’s unstinting efforts to keep it at bay. The surface of the story itself is playful — the action is antic, the dialogue gut-busting — but a steady accumulation of quiet detail makes you realize, once you’ve finished, that you’ve read a story about possible alcoholism (hers) and breakdown (his).

In the final line you find yourself back at the beginning, with the squad car. But you’re in a very different and more perplexing place.

Ethan Nosowsky
Editorial Director, Graywolf Press

Wifey Redux

by Kevin Barry

This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my face pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear — this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.

We were teenage sweethearts, Saoirse and I. She was exquisite, and seventeen; I was a couple of years the older. She was blonde and wispily slight with a delicate, bone-china complexion. Her green eyes were depthless pools — I’m sorry, but this is a love story — and I drowned in them. She had amazing tits, too, small but textbook, perfectly cuppable, and an outstanding arse. I mean literally an outstanding arse. Lasciviously draw in the air, while letting your tongue loll and eyes roll, the abrupt curve of a perfect, flab-free butt cheek: she had a pair of those. It was shelved, the kind of arse my father used to say (in wry and manly sidemouthing) you could settle a mug of tea on. Also, she had a raunchy laugh and unwavering taste and she understood me. In retrospect, with the due modesty of middle age, I accept there wasn’t that much to understand. I was a moderately poetical kid, and moderately rebellious, but diligent in my studies all the same, and three months out of college I had a comfortable nook secured in the civil service. We got married when Saoirse was twenty-one and I was twenty-three. That seems impossibly young now but this was the late eighties. And we made a picture — I was a gorgeous kid myself. A Matt Dillon type, people used to say, which dates me. But your dates can work out, and we were historically lucky in the property market. We bought a fabulous old terrace house with a view to the seafront in Dun Laoghaire. We could lie in bed and watch the ships roll out across Dublin Bay, all lighted and melancholy in the night. We’d lie amid the flicker of candles and feast on each other. We couldn’t believe our luck.

We had bought the place for a song. Some old dear had died in it, and it had granny odors, so it took a while to strip back the flock wallpaper and tan-colored linoleum, but it was a perfect dream that we unpeeled. The high ceilings, the bay windows, the palm tree set in the front garden: haughty Edwardiana. We did it up with the sweat of our love and frequently broke off from our DIY tasks to fuck each other histrionically (it felt like we were running a race) on the stripped floorboards. The house rose 35 percent in value the year after we bought it. It has since octupled in value.

Those early years of our marriage were perfect bliss. Together, we made a game out of life — everything was an adventure; even getting the tires filled, even doing the groceries. We laughed a lot. We tiddled each other in the frozen foods aisle. We bit each other lustfully in the back row of the pictures at the late show, Saturdays. We made ironical play of our perfect marriage. She called me “Hubby” and I called her “Wifey.” I can see her under a single sheet, with her bare, brown legs showing, and coyly in the morning she calls to me as I dress:

“Hubby? Don’t go just yet… Wifey needs… attendance.”

“Oh but Wifey, it’s past eight already and…”

“What’s the wush, Hubby?”

Saoirse could not (and cannot) pronounce the letter R — a rabbit was a wabbit — which made her even more cute and bonkable.

I rose steadily in the civil service. I was pretty much unsackable, unless I whipped out a rifle in the canteen or raped somebody in the photocopier room. Hubby went to work, and Wifey stayed at home, but we were absolutely an equal partnership. Together, in slow-mo, we jogged the dewy, early-morning park. Our equity by the month swelled, the figures rolling ever upwards with gay abandon. The electricity of our enraptured smiles — ! ! — could have powered the National fucking Grid. Things just couldn’t get any better, and they did.

In the third year of our marriage, a girl-child was born to us. Our darling we named Ellie, and she was a marvel. She was the living image of her beautiful mother, and I was doubly in love — I pushed her stroller along the breezy promenade, the Holyhead ferry hooted, and my heart soared with the black-backed gulls. Ellie slept eight hours a night from day one. Never so much as a teething pain. A perfect, placid child, and mantelpiece-pretty. We were so lucky I came to fear some unspeakable tragedy, some deft disintegration. But the seasons as they unrolled in south County Dublin were distinct and lovely, and each had its scheduled joys — the Easter eggs, the buckets and spades, the Halloween masks, the lovely tinsel schmaltz of Crimbo. Hubby, Wifey, Baby Ellie — heaven had come down and settled all about us.

If, over the subsequent years, the weight of devotion between Saoirse and I ever so fractionally diminished — and I mean tinily — this, too, I felt, was healthy. We probably needed to pull back, just a tad, from the obsessive quality of our love for each other. This minuscule diminishing was evident, perhaps, in the faint sardonic note that entered our conversation. Say when I came home from work in the evening, and she said:

“Well, Hubby?”

With that kind of dry up note at the end of a sentence, that sarcastic stress? And I would answer in kind:

“Well, Wifey?”

Of course the century turned, and early middle age slugged into the picture, and our arses dropped. Happens. And sure, I began to thicken a little around the waist. And yes, unavoidably, the impromptu fucking tends to die off a bit when you’ve a kid in the house. But we were happy still, just a little more calmly so, and I repeat that this is the story of a happy, happy marriage. (Pounds table twice for emphasis.)

Not that I didn’t linger sometimes in memory. How could I not? I mean Saoirse, when she was seventeen, was… erotic perfection. I could never desire anyone more than I did Saoirse back then. It was painful, almost, that I had wanted her so badly, and it had felt sinful, almost (I was brought up Catholic), to be able to sate my lust for her, at will, whenever I wanted, in whatever manner I wanted, and for so many ecstatic years.

I’m not saying she hasn’t aged well. She remains an extremely handsome woman. She has what my mother used to call an excellent hold of herself. Certainly, there is a little weight on her now, and that would have seemed unimaginable on those svelte, fawnish, teenage limbs, but as I have said, I’m no Twiggy myself these days. We like creamy pasta dishes flecked with lobster bits. We like ludicrously expensive chocolate. The kind with chilli bits baked in and a lavender dusting. And yes, occasionally, in the small hours, I suffer from… weeping jags. As the ships roll out remorselessly
across Dublin Bay. And fine, let’s get it all out there, let’s — Saoirse has developed a Pinot Grigio habit that would knock a fucking horse.

But we are happy. We love each other. And we are dealing.

Because we married so young, however, and because we had our beautiful Ellie so early in life, we have that strange sensation of still being closely attuned to the operatics of the teenage world even now as our daughter has entered it. It’s almost as if we never left it ourselves, and we know all the old steps of the dance still as Ellie pelts through that skittle sequence of drugs, music, fashion, melancholia, suicidal ideation and, well, sex.

The difficult central fact of this thing: Ellie is now seventeen years old and everything about her is a taunt to man. The hair, the coloring, the build. Her sidelong glance, and the hoarseness of her laugh, and the particular way she pokes the tip of her tongue from the corner of her mouth in sardonic dismissal, and the hammy, poppy-eyed stare that translates as:

“Are you for weal?”

No, she can’t say her Rs either. And she wears half-nothing. Hot pants, ripped tights, belly tops, and she has piercings all over. A slash of crimson lippy. Thigh-high boots.

Now understand that this is not about to get weird and fucked up but I need to point out that she is identical to Saoirse at that age. I am just being brutally honest here. And I would plead that the situation is not unusual. It’s just one of those things you’re supposed to keep shtum about. Horribly often, our beautiful, perfect daughters emerge into a perfect facsimile of how our beautiful, desirable wives had been, back then, when they were young. And slim. And sober. There is a horrid poignancy to it. And to even put this stuff down on paper looks wrong. There are certain people (hello, Dr. Murtagh!) who would see this and think: your man is bad again. So I should just get to the story of how the trouble started. And, of course, it concerns my hatred for the boys who flock around my beautiful daughter.

Oh, trust me. Every hank of hair and hormones with the price of a lip ring in the borough of Dun Laoghaire has been panting after our Ellie. But she flicked them all away, one after the other, nothing lasted for more than an innocent date or two. Not until young and burly Aodhan McAdam showed up on the scene.

Even saying the horrible, smug, hiccupy syllables of that fucker’s name makes me retch. He wasn’t her usual type, so immediately I was worried. The usual type — so far as it had been established — was black-clad, pale-skinned, basically depressed-looking, given to eyeliner and guitar cases, Columbine types, sniper material, little runts in duster coats, addicted to their antihistamine inhalers, self-harmers, yadda-yadda, but basically innocent. I knew by the way she carried herself that she did not succumb to them. A father can tell — although this is another of the facts you’re supposed to keep shtum about. But then — hear the brush and rattle of doom’s timpani drums — enter Aodhan McAdam.

“Howya doin’ boss-man?”

This, quickly, became his ritual greeting when I answered the door, evenings, and found him in his track pants and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirt on the checkered tiles of our porch. He typically accompanied the greeting with a pally little punch on my upper arm and a big, toothy grin. He was seventeen, six two, with blonde, floppy hair, and about eight million quids’ worth of dental work. Looked like he’d been raised on prime beef and full-fat milk. Handsome as a movie star and so easy in his skin. One of those horrible, mid-Atlantic twangs — these kids don’t even sound fucking Irish any more — and broad as a jeep; I had no doubt he could beat the shit out of me. Which meant that I would have to surprise him.
I knew after the first two weeks that they were fucking. It was the way she carried herself — she was little-girl no more. And what did her mother do about this? She went and fetched another bottle of Pinot Grigio from the fridge.

“Saoirse, we need to talk about what’s going on back there?”

Wrong, I know, you’re supposed to leave these things be. But I couldn’t… I couldn’t not bring it up. It was poisoning me.

Saoirse and I were in the front den. We keep the bigger TV in there, and the coffee table we commissioned from the Artisans-with-Aids program, and a retro fifties couch in a burnt-orange shade that our shapes have settled into — unpleasantly, it makes it look like we have arses the size of boulders — and stacks upon stacks of DVDs climb the
walls, just about every box set yet issued.

“I suppose you know,” I said, “that they’re, well… you know.”

“Don’t,” Saiorse said.

I sighed and left the den. The way it worked, Ellie had the use of the sitting room down back of the ground floor; no teenager wants to sit with her parents. She’d had a decorator in — it was got up in like a purple-and-black scheme — and she had a really fabulous Eames couch we’d got at auction for her sixteenth, and I went down there to check on Aodhan and herself. The shade was down, and they were watching some hip-hop crap on satellite, and they were under a duvet. This was a summer evening.

“Yo, Popsicle,” Ellie said.

“Hey,” Aodhan McAdam said, and leered at me.

I unleashed the coldest look I could summon and tried to say something and felt like I had a mouthful of marbles. I went back to the front den. I settled into the massive arse shape on my side of the couch.
“Do you realize,” I said, “that they’re under a duvet back there?”

“Mmm-hmm?”

Saoirse was watching a Wire episode with crew commentary and was nose deep in a bucket-sized glass of Pinot Grigio. She drank it ice-cold — I could see the splinters of frozen crystals in there.

“I mean what the fuck are they doing under a duvet? It’s July!”

She turned to me, and smiled benignly.

“I think we can pwesume,” she said, “that she’s jackin’ him off.”

“Lovely,” I said.

“Ellie’s seventeen,” she said. “The fuck do you think she’s
doing?”

“That fucking little McAdam bastard…“

“Not so little,” Saoirse said. “And actually he’s kinda hot?”

You’re supposed to just deal. But my brain would not stop whirring. I lay there that night in bed, and I was under siege. Random images came at me which I will not describe. I was nauseous. I knew it was a natural thing. I knew there was no stopping it. And as the morning surfaced on the bay, I tried to accept it. But I got out of the bed and I felt like I’d fought a war. I thought, maybe it’s better that he’s a rugby type rather than one of the sniper types. At least maybe he’s healthier.

That evening, after work, as I took my walk along the prom, with the cold sea oblivious, I saw them: the rugby boys. They hang out by a particular strip of green down there, sitting around the rain shelter, or tossing a ball about, and chortling all the time, chortling, with their big shiteater grins and testosterone. They all have the floppy hair, the polo shirts in soft pastels, the Canterbury track pants, the mid-Atlantic twangs. Aodhan McAdam was among them, and he saw me, and grinned, and he made a pair of pistols with his fingers and fired them at me.

Ka-pow, he mouthed.

Ha-ha, I grinned back.

He was no doubt giving the rest of the scrum a full account about what went on beneath the duvet. Of course he was! And later he was back for more. Bell rings about ten: orthodontic beam on porch. In fact, he appeared to have pretty much moved into the house. Every night now he was among us.

“Babes!” she squealed, and she raced down the hallway, and leapt onto him, and right there — right in front of me! — he cupped her butt cheek.

Now often, between box-set episodes, Saoirse and I hang in the kitchen — it’s maybe our fave space, and it’s tricked out with as much cutesy, old-timey shit as a soul could reasonably stomach. The Aga. The stoneware pots from Puglia. The St. Brigid’s Cross made out of actual, west of Ireland reeds for an ethnic-type touch. We snack hard and we just, like, sway with the kitchen vibe? But now Ellie and Aodhan were invading. Eighteen times a night they were out of the back room and attacking the fridge. Saoirse just smiled, fondly, as they ploughed into the hummus, the olives, the flatbreads, the cold cuts, the blue cheese, the Ben & Jerry’s, the lavender-dusted chocolate from Fallon & Byrne. I watched the motherfucker from the island counter — the way he wolfed the stuff down was unreal.

“Do they feed you at your own place at all, Aodhan?” I said, wryly.

He chortled, and he took out a six-pack of Petit Filous yoghurts, and he made for the couch-and-duvet in my back room. He mock-punched me in the gut as he passed by.

“This ol’ boy’s runnin” on heavy fuel,” he said, and he mussed my hair, or what’s left of it.

Later, in the den, I turned to Saoirse:

“He’s treating me like a bitch,” I said.

She was freezeframing bits of The Wire that featured the gay killer Omar because she had a thing for him. She had lately been waking in the night and crying out his name.

“So what are you going to do about it?” she said.

“I know they’re fucking,” I said. “I can just… smell it?”

“You need to talk to Doctor Murtagh about this,” she said.

“Meaning?”

“Meaning cognitive fucking thewapy,” she said. “Meaning medication time. Meaning this is looking like a bweakdown-type thing again?”

All over the house, I felt like I could hear him… chomping? You know sometimes, in a plane, when your ears are weird, and they flip out the food trays, and you chew, and you can hear the jaw motions of your own mastication in a loud, amped, massively unpleasant way? It was like I was hearing that all over the house —

Aodhan!

Chomping!

Also, he was using the downstairs loo, under the stairs, and of course he pissed like a prize stallion. Saoirse thought it was all marvellous, and she talked increasingly about how hot she thought he was, as hot almost as Omar. We’re talking a lunk but angelically pretty — like a beefy choirboy that could mangle a bear? Fucking hideous.

Then summer thickened and there was a heat wave. We garden, and we have a terrific deck — done out with all this Tunisian shit we bought off the lepers in Zarzis — overlooking the back lawn. During the heat wave, Aodhan and Ellie took over the deck space. I watched from the kitchen — I was deveining some king prawns while Saoirse expertly pestled a coriander-seed-and-lime-zest marinade. Ellie lay face down on the lounger, in a string bikini, and he sat on the lounger’s edge, and with his big sausagey fingers he untied the top of the bikini, and pushed the straps gently back. Then he shook the lotion bottle, rubbed a squirt of it onto his palms, and began to massage it in, super-slow, like some fucking porno setup. Through the open window I heard her throaty little moans, and I saw the way she turned to him, adoringly, and he bent down and whispered to her, and she squealed.

“Next thing,” I said to Saoirse, “they’re actually going to have it off in front of us.”

“What is she, a nun?”

“I’ve had enough of this,” I said.

I flung the prawns into the Belfast sink and I stormed out of the house. I bought cigarettes for the first time in six months and lit one right there on the forecourt of the Topaz. I smoked, and I took off along the prom. I passed the rugby boys’ rain shelter, and it was deserted, and I saw that there was an amount of graffiti scrawled around the back wall of the shelter. I went to have a closer look.

Nicknames, stuff about schools-rugby rivals, so-and-so loves such-and-such, or so-and-so loves ???, but then, prominently, this:

ELLIE P THE BLO-JOB QUEEN
B-L-O! And P! That they had used my surname’s initial for emphasis, the P of my dead father’s Prendergast! I went and power-walked the length of the pier and back three times. A glorious summer evening, and busy on the pier, with friends and neighbors all about — but I just ignored them all; I pelted up and down, with my arms swinging, and I ground my teeth, and I cried a little (a lot), and I smoked the pack.

I could see the neighbors thinking:

Is he not great again?

Later, in the den:

Aodhan had gone home, and I could hear the thunk, shlank, whumpf of her music from upstairs, and Saoirse had gone into her keeping-an-eye-on-me mode; she was all concerned and hand-holdy now.

“I think we can pwesume, hon,” she said, “that he didn’t, like, white it himself?”

“A gentleman!” I said. “But even so he’s been mouthing off, hasn’t he? And it doesn’t bother you at all that she’s…”

I couldn’t finish it.

“She’s seventeen, Jonathan.”

“I say we front her.”

“This is nuts. And say what? That she shouldn’t be giving blow jobs?”

“Please, Saoirse…”

“I was giving blow jobs at seventeen.”

“Congratulations.”

“As you well know.”

“But I wasn’t mouthing off about it, was I? I was keeping it to myself!”

“Just leave it, Jonathan…”

Again that night I hardly slept. I developed this incessant buzzing sound in my head. It sounded like I had a broken strip light in there. More images came at me, and you can picture exactly what they were:
Ellie, descending.

And big Aodhan McAdam — ! — grinning.

The next morning I went to her room. Fuck it, I was going to be strong. There was going to be a conversation about Respect. For herself, for her home, for her parents. For duvets. I knocked, crisply, twice, and I pushed in the door, and I could feel that my forehead was taut with self-righteousness (or whatever), and I found her in a sobbing mess on the bed.

Suicidal!

Ellie’s tears nuke my innards.

“Oh, babycakes!” I wailed. “What is it!”

I threw myself on the bed. So much for the Respect conversation. Aodhan, it turned out, had taken his oral gratification and skedaddled. It was so over.

She was inconsolable. We had the worst Saturday morning of all time in our house. Which is saying a great deal. She was between rage and tears and when she is upset she behaves appallingly, my angel. It started right off, at breakfast:
A sunny Saturday, heaven-sent, in peejays — it should have been perfection. Saoirse was sitting at the island counter, trembling, as she ate pinhead porridge with acai fruit and counted off the hours till she could start glugging back the ice-cold Pinot Grigio. I was scraping an anti-death spread the color of Van Gogh’s sunflowers onto a piece of nine-grain artisanal toast. Ellie was vexing between flushes of crimson rage and sobbing fits and making a sound like a lung-diseased porpoise.

“Oh please, Ell?” I said. “It’s only been, like…”

“Eleven weeks!” she cried. “Eleven weeks of my fucking life I gave that dickwad!”

“Look, baby, I know it doesn’t seem like it now? But you’ll get over this and it might work out for the best and…”

And maybe the blow-job rep will start to fade, I didn’t say.

“What’s this?” she said.

She held a box of muesli in her hand.

“It’s a box of muesli,” I said.

“No it is not,” she said.

Admittedly, it was an own-brand line from a mid-range supermarket — a rare anomaly.

“Ah, Ellie, it’s fine, look, it’s actually quite tasty…”

She turned the box upside down and emptied the muesli onto the limestone flags that had cost peasants their dignity to hump over from County Clare.

“This is not actual ceweal,” she said. “This is, like, twibute ceweal?”

She began with her bare feet to slowly crush the muesli into the flagstones. Deliberately grinding up and down, with a steady rhythm to her step, like a French yokel mashing grapes, or a chick on a Stairmaster set to a high gradient.

“I want him back,” she said.

“Ah, look, Ellie, I mean…”

“I want Aodhan back.”

She came across the flags and caught me by the peejay lapels.

“And I want him back today!”

I fell to my knees and hugged her waist.

“But this is madness!” I cried.

Generally speaking, in the run of a life, when you find yourself using the expression —

“But this is madness!”

— you can take it that things are not going to quickly improve. It was half ten in the morning but Saoirse didn’t give a toss any more and she went to the fridge and took the cork from a half-drunk bottle of Pinot Grigio. With her teeth.

So! The next development!

I was sent to have a heart-to-heart with Aodhan McAdam. He had, of course, switched his phone off — they are by seventeen experts in avoidance tactics. And Ellie could not and would not lower her dignity by going to find him herself. And Saoirse hadn’t left the house in eleven months, except for Vida Pura™ blood transfusions, Dakota hotstone treatments, and Beach Body Bootcamp (abandoned). So it was down to me. I was to find out his mood, his motives, his intentions. Essentially, I was to win him back. Saoirse was as intent on getting him back as Ellie. He was male youth, after all, and she liked having that stuff around the house.

It turned out that McAdam worked a Saturday job. Oh right, I thought, so he’s going with the humble shit — a Saturday job! He worked at this DIY warehouse on the Naas Road. I got in the Volvo and rolled. I played a motivational CD. N’gutha Ba’al, the Zambian self-confidence guru, told me in his rich, honeyed timbre that I had a warrior’s inner glow and the spirit of a cheetah. I cried a little (a lot) at this. I felt husky and brave and stout-hearted but the feeling was fleet as the light on the bay. Traffic was scant but scary. Cars edged out at the intersections in abrupt, skittery movements. Trucks loomed, and the sound of their exhausts was horrifyingly amplified. Pedestrians were straight out of a bad dream. Everybody’s hair looked odd. I drove through the south side of the city, tightened my grip on the wheel and tried to remember to breathe in the belly. The Volvo was grinding like an assassin as I pulled into the Do-It-Rite! car park. I tried to play the thing like I was an ordinary Joe, a Saturday-man just out on an errand, but I knew at once I wanted to climb up the store’s signage and rip down that exclamation mark

!

from Do-It-Rite!

I stormed — stormed! — towards the entrance but that didn’t work out, as the automatic doors did not register my presence as a human being. So I had to take a little step back and approach the doors again — but still they would not part — and I reversed three steps, four, and approached yet again, but still they would not part, and in my shame I raised my eyes to the heavens, and I saw that the letters of the Do-It-Rite! signage were so flimsily attached, with just brackets and screws, and this too was an outrage — the shoddiness of the fix. Then a Saturday-man approached and the doors glided open and I entered the store in the slipstream of his normalcy.

I hunted the aisles for Aodhan McAdam. They were shooting day-for-night in the vast warehouse space, it was luridly strip-lit, and I prowled by the paint racks, the guttering supplies, the mops and hinges, the masonry nails, the rat traps and the laminate flooring kits, and some cronky half-smothered yelps of rage escaped my throat as I walked, and every Saturday-man I passed did a double take on me. The place was the size of a half-dozen soccer pitches patchworked together, and the staff wore yellow dungaree cover-alls, so that they could be picked out for DIY advice, and eventually I saw up top of a set of cover-alls the blond, floppy hair, the megawatt grin and the powerful jaw muscles, those hideous chompers.

“Aodhan!”

The grin turned to me, and it was so enormous it dazzled his features to an indistinctness, I saw just that exclamation mark

!

from the Do-It-Rite! — but when he focused, the grin died, at once, right there.

“Jonathan?”

I went to him, and I smiled, and I took gently his elbow in my hand.

“Can we talk, Aodhan?”

“Sure, man, I mean…”

Now it is a rare enough occurrence in contemporary life that the occasion presents itself for truly felt speech. We are trapped — all of us — behind this glaring wash of irony. But in the quietest aisle of the Do-It-Rite! that Saturday&msadh;drylining accessories — as Aodhan McAdam and I squatted discreetly on our haunches, I spoke honestly, and powerfully, and from the heart.

“Listen,” I said, “I know about the blow jobs. That’s perfectly natural. I was getting blow jobs myself when I was seventeen. I wasn’t broadcasting the fact, and I could spell, but I was…”

He tried to rise from his haunches, he tried to get away, but I had this strange animal strength (your eyebrows ascend, Dr. Murtagh), and I kept his bony elbow clamped in my claw, and I lasered my eyes into his, and he was scared enough, I could see that.

I said:

“Ellie Prendergast, or should I say Ellie P., is the most beautiful girl in this city. She is an absolute fucking angel. If you hurt her, I will kill you. I’m telling you this now so you can give yourself a chance.”

I slapped him once across the face. It was a manic shot with plenty of sting to it. I told him of youth’s fleeting nature. I told him he didn’t realize how quickly all this would pass. I told him how it had been for me. I spoke of the darknesses that can so quickly seep between the cracks of a life. I told him of the images I had witnessed and voices I had heard. He began to cry in fear. I told him how my Wifey had been plagued by evil faeries in the night — oh it was all coming out! — and how my Ellie was to me a deity to be worshipped, and I would protect her with my life.

“I have type 1 diabetes!” he sobbed. “I can’t deal with this
shit!”

Oh but I laid it on with a motherfucking trowel. I brought him to the pits of despair and showed him around. My threats were veiled and made stranger by the serenity of my smile. I said I expected him on the porch at eight o’clock, in his track pants and his Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirt. But before that he would have a job to do. We rose from our haunches and I caught the scruff of his neck and I led him along the aisles to the paint racks — Saturday-men watched, staff in yellow cover-alls watched, but no one approached us — and I showed him the white paint, how much of it there was and how cheap it was, and I explained I’d be pulling a spot check on the rain shelter at seven o’clock, sharp.

I let go of him then. I sucked up the last of my calm, and I said:

“Listen, Aodhan, we’re doing a shopping run this afternoon… Can I fetch anything in particular? You two go for that barbecue salmon in the vac-packs, don’t you?”

I left him ashen-faced and limp. I prowled the aisles some more and now these hot little barks of triumph came up as I walked. The Saturday-men avoided my eyes, and they scurried from my path, and I barked a little louder. As I’m here, I thought, why not pick up a couple of things?

So I bought an extendable ladder and a claw hammer. The automatic doors registered my presence at once and I was let outside to the sun-kissed afternoon. I propped and extended the ladder against the front of the store and I climbed with the claw hammer hanging coolly in my grip. It took no more than a half-dozen wrenches to loose the exclamation mark

!

from the Do-It-Rite and carefully I placed it under my arm — it was light as air — and I descended. I walked across the car park. I placed it carefully on the tarmac in front of the Volvo — my intention was to drive over it and smash it to pieces — but then I thought, no, that would be too quick. So I got down on my knees and I started to tap gently with the hammer at the blue plastic of the exclamation mark

!

until it began to crack here and there, and tiny shatter lines appeared, and these joined up, piece by piece, until the entire surface of the

!

had become a beautiful mosaic in the blue of the sign, like the trace of tiny backroads on an old map — marking out lost fields, lost kingdoms, a lost world — and I was serene as a bird riding the swells of morning air over those fields.

The squad car appeared.

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