“Whoever Is There, Come on Through”

This article originally appeared on this site.

Audio: Colin Barrett reads.

Eileen watched the bus pull into the depot and the passengers debark, stiff and groggy, into the crisp November air, their breath flashing like handkerchiefs in front of their faces. She was in her car, the window rolled all the way down, her arm slung out. She was smoking a cigarette but the cigarette had gone out and her arm had turned numb, not from the cold but from the ligature of its own hanging weight. Eileen liked the sensation, as if her arm were holding its breath.

The crowd dispersed, leaving one man lurking under the eave of the shelter. He had a Slazenger sports bag bunched against his ribs, long wrists dangling from his coat cuffs, and a pink, animate nose, twitching like a dog’s. It was Murt’s gait and it was Murt’s head. Eileen had known Murt since they were both thirteen—a dozen years now—and his frame had never lost the stringy, unfinished quality of adolescence, though he had since acquired a little belly.

Eileen dropped the dead smoke and hauled her sleeping arm inside the car and onto her lap. She jabbed her other thumb into the crease of her palm. The flesh was cool, waxen, but already she could feel it coming on, the reviving fizz of the nerves. When the bristling subsided, she opened the door and got out, raised her refreshed arm into the air. Murt gathered the folds of his coat collar and set off from under the eave.

When he was near enough, she said, “Welcome back to planet Earth.”

“They still calling it that?” he said.

“They are.”

“I told you, you didn’t have to come.”

“I know,” Eileen said.

He went to hug her, and she stepped away from the door to let him.

He asked her to go to his uncle Nugent’s. He did not say if his uncle was expecting him, or what his mother would have to say about that. Murt did not make any mention of the mother. Eileen had resolved not to ask too many questions. As far as she knew, on this occasion Murt had entered the hospital voluntarily and the hospital had now consented to his discharge; Eileen took this to mean that he was over the worst of it, had managed to once again step back from the ledge of himself. It would be up to him to talk about it or not. So Eileen concentrated on getting him across town, subdued on a weekday afternoon, the slivers of ice pulverized into the pores of the macadam giving the road a sullen shine.

They idled on a red at a T junction.

“Who won the U.S. election?” Murt asked.

She told him.

“Whoa,” he said flatly.

The election had been two weeks earlier. Eileen figured Murt already knew who’d won; the question was a way of letting her know how out of it he was—at least back then.

“We could go to McDonald’s,” Eileen said.

“What even are they called?” Murt said. Eileen glanced over at him. He had his shoulders ducked forward and was looking through the windshield at a building that used to be a bank, then something else, but was now a bank again.

“What are what even called?”

“I want to say cornices,” he said. “Turrets, maybe. Those sculpted bits of stone, those patterned bits, at the very top. I don’t have a clue, but.”

Eileen looked up. The stone along the roof of the building had a row of vertical recesses carved into it, the recesses filled with scraps of blond, stale-looking snow.

“What you don’t know,” Murt said. “It’s only when you stop to take stock you realize. I can, for instance, be reading a book.”

“And you look up,” Eileen said.

“Exactly,” he said. “Like, what was I just reading? I can spend thirty minutes devoutly banging through a book, rereading sentences just to savor them. And a minute later I’m consulting the wall and I can’t recall a blessed.”

“I get that, completely,” Eileen said.

“I mean, my concentration is absolutely totalled most of the time anyway, just gone. But now and then I’ll lull myself into thinking, Yeah, yeah, the head’s getting sharp again—oh, go,” he said, meaning the light.

Eileen looked. It was green.

Murt’s bag was squeezed in front of his shins in the footwell. He mumbled at her that his phone was dead. Eileen said there was a portable charger in the glove box.

“Resurrecting the profiles,” he said, thumbing at the screen.

At McDonald’s, Murt ordered two Happy Meals for himself, a chocolate milkshake, and a coffee. They took a booth.

“Always enjoy the tension,” he said. “Waiting to see if they’ll ask if there’s actually a child with you.”

Eileen thought Murt’s mentioning a child might prompt him to ask after her son, Ashleigh.

“I’m thinking they’re obliged to give you whatever you want in any case,” she said.

“Yeah, but there are the rules and there’s the spirit of the thing,” Murt said, turning the nubbin of a chicken nugget between his fingers. “Strikes me I’ve been pining for a taste of exactly this. And you knew.”

“I wanted to come anyway,” Eileen said.

“Look,” he said. There were two lads at the counter. One was in a Chicago Bulls bomber jacket, the other had a frayed cast on his wrist and a round, ugly, floridly freckled face, their heads cocked back with their mouths open, contemplating the overhead screens of the menu.

“The Heads,” Murt said. “The Heads, the Heads, the Heads.”

Lunchtimes back in secondary school, he and Eileen would walk around the town pegging cold chips at pigeons and inventing classifications for passersby. The Heads was what they used to call a certain type of local, the ones to whom it would never occur to leave. Eileen, it seemed, had become one of them after all.

On the way to his uncle’s, Murt said that he was tired. Tired was a vague descriptor, and anything vague was treacherous, but Eileen didn’t want to push. Nugent’s house was a bungalow with a pebble-dash job so pockmarked it looked as if the façade had taken heavy artillery fire. There were two cars in the drive. Murt did not invite her in. He said, “Thank you for the lift, Eileen.”

“Take her handy and I’ll give you a buzz soon,” she said.

Eileen replayed their interaction on the drive home. She had to be careful. There was the danger, after one of his bad periods, of reading meaning into Murt’s every blink and syllable. She had arranged to work only evenings this week behind Naughton’s bar, so that she could get over to Murt in the mornings or early afternoons, which would at least oblige him to be up at a reasonable hour. Not that she wanted to impose structure on him. But she wanted to be there if structure was what he needed.

They’d met when the girls Eileen hung out with fell in with the boys Murt hung out with. Murt was the morose but funny one of the group, and played the hypochondriac, anxious, would-be depressive so well and so pitilessly that Eileen was surprised to find out that he actually was all of those things. When they were sixteen, he confessed to a crush on her. She told him that she wanted to stay friends. A few weeks later, he went into the hospital for the first time. Eileen blamed herself, until he eventually wrote a gruellingly detailed e-mail assuring her that she had nothing to do with it, or not more than anything else. She would not have believed him without that qualification. This latest stint was Murt’s fourth hospitalization. He’d tried to tell her once what it was like. He said it was as if everything were always turning endlessly over, turning into something else, inside him, and Eileen’s understanding was that it simply never stopped.

The next time Eileen arrived at Nugent’s, there were again two cars in the drive. A pug dog was padding around the lawn. Its jowled puss and weepy eyes tracked Eileen as she got out of her car. It kept watching as she walked around the bonnet to retrieve a carton of doughnuts from the passenger side. The dog belonged to Sara Duane, Jamie’s bure, which meant that Jamie, Murt’s big brother, must be there, too. The front door was closed but not locked, a gesture of etiquette still resolutely practiced among certain of the older generation and which meant: Whoever is there, come on through. As Eileen went down the hall, she could hear the scattering cold points of a young man’s laughter, Jamie’s laughter.

Eileen tapped on the kitchen door, pushed it open. Nugent was sitting on a ragged little settee with a trucker cap covering his bald spot. Murt was at the kitchen table in a cement-colored hoodie, his laptop in front of him. Jamie was up and in motion, wearing an olive-green Forestry jacket over a T-shirt, sweatpants, and a pair of battered Chelsea boots, the heels of the boots snapping like fingers as he paced the planked floor. Sara Duane was in an easy chair, drinking Calpol cough medicine straight out of the bottle, a purple tinge banding her top lip.

“Currency is anyway a legacy structure,” Jamie said.

“Sorry for interrupting,” Eileen said, looking from Nugent to Jamie and then Murt. Murt had the glassy, heaped disposition of one routed recently from his bed.

“Eileen,” Nugent said. He rose to his feet, looked down at the settee, and sighed. “Change,” he said, “is the bane of my existence,” and bent to recover the coins that had just seeped from his pockets.

Nugent, a man once unthinkingly robust, had suffered a stroke several years back. Among the litany of mutinies perpetrated by his body on his body was a lasting deformity to his hands: each thumb and forefinger had wrenched back and locked in place, an effect that surgery had only partially reversed. His thumbs remained severely kinked, like claws, obliging Nugent to roughly sweep at the cushion with one palm and catch the splattering coins in the other.

“Coins are at least aesthetically pleasing objects. Notes are just dirty paper,” Jamie said.

“We’re on economics now,” Nugent said to Eileen. “You already missed a lecture on biology.”

“Currency’s a sentiment we can let go of at any time,” Jamie said. “We just don’t want to yet, but rest assured.”

“Not going to happen,” Murt said.

“Trust me,” Jamie replied. “Currency, computers, they are just technologies, and it’s in the nature of technologies to go away. A thing arrives, it proliferates, it grows into ubiquity. And, like everything else that reaches ubiquity, it one day disappears.”

“Your dog is outside, so you know,” Eileen said.

“I do know,” Sara said.

“Cheerio has a ferocious tolerance for his own company,” Jamie said. “Which is commendably undogly of him.”

“I would say he looks a little bit lost out there,” Eileen said.

“He came out of his mammy’s crease looking exactly as lost,” Jamie said. “Don’t judge a thing off him by that look.”

“What are you saying about my dog?” Sara said to Jamie. “And she’s a she, for Christ’s sakes. Millionth time I’m telling you.” She had the pinched, flushed look of someone enduring something viral.

“I brought doughnuts,” Eileen said.

“Doughnuts,” Jamie sneered.

“Doughnuts,” Sara repeated.

“What’s wrong with doughnuts?” Eileen said.

“Nothing. Only there’s no credible way for a Mayo accent to say dough-nutz,” Jamie said.

It was Eileen’s opinion that if you wanted demented, if you wanted pathology, here was Jamie: with his vicious jabber and his incoherent clothes, his brain like a door with a busted latch, incapable of ever being shut. The Forestry jacket was pure Jamie. Out of technical college he’d managed to get a job in which he was paid very well to sit in a portakabin in the Belleek woods and read the paper while polite middle-class ramblers visiting from Dublin and the odd school tour trekked around the trails and the ruins. Last year he’d been suspended and then fired after it was discovered he was taking payments to let travellers burn rubbish on a site in the woods. The smoke had almost completely killed off a listed species of weed that grew wild there. Jamie maintained that the real reason he was let go was that he’d consorted with travellers, treating them with what he insisted was dignity while the council racked their brains to find a way to run them out of town altogether.

Eileen recalled the second car outside. She wondered if Jamie had also managed to shack up with Nugent. Jamie had been the standard superior big brother, oscillating between picking on and protecting Murt, and still possessed an occult hold over him without even trying. Eileen could already hear Jamie’s influence in Murt’s voice.

“Another problem being, economics is a theology now,” Murt said.

“Absolutely,” Jamie said. “Absolutely. And the worst one there is.”

“Is he here, too, so?” Eileen asked Nugent, nodding at Jamie.

“In what sense?” Nugent asked.

“In the sense is he staying here, too.”

“For a spell,” Jamie said. “Would be the situation.”

“Define spell,” Nugent said to Jamie, a little irritated. Then, to Eileen, “I made the mistake of not offering terms and little has been forthcoming.”

“Nuge understands solidarity,” Jamie said. “And is a tenderhearted cunt underneath it all.”

“Nuge is frankly sound,” Murt said.

“We love him,” Jamie said.

“Stop,” Nugent said.

Eileen came over to the table and popped open the doughnut carton. She’d bought five, figuring one apiece for Murt, Nugent, and herself, with an extra one each for the boys. “Have at them,” she said.

“These from the Maxol out at the Tesco?” Jamie asked.

“Yeah,” Eileen said.

“Excellent. They are of course not good, but they are the best you will get in this corner of the world,” Jamie said, lifting a glazed ring and taking a bite.

“I want like a half,” Sara said. Jamie tore his doughnut in half and tossed her the bitten part.

“Prickhole,” she said, and threw it back at him. It landed on the floor.

Nugent said he would put on the tea.

“I was thinking we could go into town, maybe,” Eileen said to Murt. “Or a walk.”

“Thanks, Eileen,” Murt said, rising from his seat to reach for a doughnut. Jamie leaned in and measuredly thwacked the carton down the table toward his little brother.

“And how’s Big Devaney?” Jamie asked Eileen, meaning her partner, Mark.

“He’s sound.”

“And how’s your little buck? What’s your little buck called again?”

“Ashleigh.”

“Ashleigh,” Jamie repeated. “Only I saw Devaney’s other boy, the teen-age lad, in town the other day.”

“That would be Danny.”

“It’s an uncanny business,” Jamie said.

“What is?” Murt asked.

“Children,” Jamie said.

Eileen and Murt were walking the path by the river in the Belleek woods. It was only gone two in the afternoon, but the sky was already so gray it was like being on the moon, the light a kind of exhausted residue. To their right coursed the Moy, dark as stout and in murderous spate; to their left high conifers stood like rows of encumbered coatracks. Eileen was smoking, mizzle prickling her face; Murt was in a woollen hat and gloves borrowed from his uncle. They’d agreed to walk the length of the woods and were both so soaked it would have taken more resolve to abandon the walk than to keep going.

“Nuge is an incel,” Murt said.

“Incel?”

“Involuntary celibate.”

“What’s that when it’s at home?”

“What it sounds like. It’s the new parlance. The world is awash with the new parlance.”

“And in what sense is Nuge one of them cells?” Eileen said.

“Incel,” Murt said. “And he is one in the sense he’s never known how to get any—and never will. That’s the problem with sex. In order to know how to get any, you need to have already managed to figure out how to get some. And Nuge is too innocent.”

“Innocent,” Eileen said.

“In his heart, Nuge is an innocent. A man of insufficient savagery and guile.”

Murt and Jamie’s father had been a generally useless article who drank, and left the family to move to England when Murt was ten, ostensibly for work. They’d stopped hearing from him years ago. Nugent, his younger brother, had always been one of those men who spent a lot of time with children, back when that wasn’t looked at skeptically. He’d stewarded football games, volunteered in the community center, and let Murt or Jamie stay at his place whenever they got too much for their mother.

“He was always that way,” Murt went on, “even before the stroke. Small towns are incubators for these men. It’s not even that they are secretly queer or anything like that. They just never developed the cop to have anything to do with it at all. These are the men who faithfully do the messages, by foot, every day for the mother, year in and year out, until one of them drops dead.”

A few days with Jamie had entirely contaminated Murt’s style of speaking, though he was energized, which was good.

“Is Nugent’s mother alive?” Eileen asked.

“She’s not, but that doesn’t matter. It goes toward my point.”

“And how is your mother?”

“That’s not the question.”

“I was only asking.”

Murt was looking straight ahead. There was someone coming toward them.

“That sky’s like porridge someone left sitting out,” he muttered.

Jogging at them through the hanging vapor was a man in a sopping T-shirt. The number 2012 was emblazoned on it in large white print and for a moment Eileen felt disoriented, as if that sequence of digits, the year they represented, were an unreachably long way away into the future, instead of already gone. Eileen and Murt parted and the man passed between them, eyes resentfully intent upon the middle distance.

“Cullen. Keith Cullen, that was,” Eileen said.

“Loon, in this weather,” Murt said.

“You’re telling me.”

“In the locker room at school once he thumped me on the side of the head for I forget what,” Murt said.

“I could imagine, though,” Eileen said.

“Look at that—I still fit into your grandmother’s wedding dress.”

“Something maybe about his sister probably, or his bure, some no doubt enlightened remark right out of my mouth.”

After a while, Eileen said, “I think Nugent’s all right.”

“I’m not saying he’s not all right.”

They kept walking. Murt felt around in his jacket pocket and pulled out a packet of hard toffees. He grubbed a sweet from its cellophane wrapper and lodged it inside his jaw, offered Eileen one. She took a last drag of her cigarette and flicked it into the Moy.

“Let me tell you,” Murt said, sighing.

“Tell me,” Eileen said.

“Being depressed is like being in a dream. The suspicion is that everyone you meet is actually depressed, too, only they don’t know it. Or worse. The suspicion is that they’re just aspects of you, manifestations.”

“I don’t follow,” Eileen admitted.

“Cullen, for instance,” Murt went on. “I was just thinking about school this morning. I was thinking about how awful I was back then, and how I was just this wretched little streak of jism. And I was thinking about how many deserved lumps I got, and how Cullen was just one of the many lads who imparted them lumps to me. And then there he is. What is he, then, if not a manifestation?”

“I did want to ask how your mother is, Murt.”

“Jesus. Eileen. Fuck. How about: How is Eunice?”

“Eunice is fine,” Eileen said tonelessly.

“Eunice is paying penance for other people’s sins, is what poor Eunice is doing,” Murt said, agitated.

“She is,” Eileen said.

Murt broke into a waddling jog. He went off into the rain, and like a boxer he drew his fists up in front of his face, swinging one out and then the other, imparting lumps to heads that were not there.

They were in Eileen’s car in the drive of her house. Murt had his head at an angle, cuffing himself under his ear, runnels of rain striping his cheek.

“I will towel the head and then.”

“Sure,” Eileen said.

“No offense.”

“I know.”

Murt was always reluctant to come in. It didn’t matter who was around. They went through to the kitchen. Ashleigh was seated at the kitchen table with his half brother, Danny, in their different-colored school uniforms, Ashleigh’s a maroon jumper over a gray shirt, Danny’s a pastel-blue shirt and navy tie. Ashleigh was six, Danny fourteen. Danny had a pistachio between his teeth. Ashleigh was watching him.

“What’s this?” Eileen said.

Danny bit down on the pistachio with just enough pressure to split the shell. There was a pair of bowls in front of him. He dropped the kernel into one bowl and deposited the fragments of the husk into the other. This performance, Eileen figured, was for Ashleigh’s benefit. It was a habit of Ashleigh’s to set challenges for Danny, like popping the tab on a Coke can without letting the foam spurt, or completing the level of a video game. These challenges were always safely rudimentary, Ashleigh anxious only to see Danny demonstrate his worldly capability, and Danny always obliged.

“Anyone here going to actually eat any pistachios?” Eileen asked.

“I’m demonstrating a technique,” Danny said.

“I see that.”

“Da likes them,” Ashleigh said.

“Da likes to do that himself. They’ll go stale out like that,” Eileen said.

“That’s that, so,” Danny said to Ashleigh, flashing the younger boy a regretful glance as he ran his fingers along the resealable top of the packet. Danny looked at Eileen and then looked away. Danny was as contained and as opaque as any teen-age boy, she supposed. He generally spoke to Eileen only when prompted, but did so in a considered and even manner in which she could never decode any sarcasm or hostility. Danny would have been within his rights to hate Eileen. Danny’s mother was Eunice. Eunice had been Mark’s first wife, was actually, still, his only wife, because they were separated but not divorced. Eileen was the reason Mark had left Eunice. There had been drama, not least because Eileen had been only nineteen, and Mark Devaney almost twice that, when she’d fallen pregnant with Ashleigh, but in the end Eunice, the wronged woman, had been the one to leave town. Danny had gone with her initially, but had returned a couple of years ago for secondary school.

Murt cleared his throat and eased back out into the hall. “Will do the hair,” he said, and went upstairs.

Ashleigh sucked in his cheeks, jabbed out his tongue, and crossed his eyes.

“Stop,” Eileen said.

“How’s Murt?” Danny said.

“He’s good.”

“Good,” Danny said, fiddling now with the zipper of his football kit bag, on the seat beside him. Danny played the trumpet, and kept the instrument wrapped in a bit of newspaper in the bag. He played in the school band, played, albeit under some duress, at the parties his father was partial to throwing in the house, and he was good enough to pick and choose gigs with several local bands. It mildly appalled Eileen that the boy carted this beautiful brass instrument around with his balled-up socks and stinking boots, but she figured that was the point. The kit bag was a gesture of deliberate negligence on Danny’s part, a protest not against his ability but against his obligation to that ability.

“Any gigs coming up?” Eileen asked him.

“Them lads in the funk band are after me to play out in Enniscrone next Thursday.”

“School night.”

“I know. It’s shekels, though.”

“They’re the ones. What are they called again, them lads?”

“They go by White Chocolate, which is, I would say, fairly racist.”

“Say it to Mark.”

“I didn’t say I was going. I said I was asked.”

“Well, say it to Mark.”

“And Da’s birthday’s in January. Reckon he’ll enlist me in some capacity.”

“How old is Da now?” Ashleigh asked.

“How old do you think?” Eileen said.

“Em. Em. Seventy,” Ashleigh said.

“I’m going to tell him you said that,” Eileen said. She looked down at the bowls in front of Danny. “Will you at least eat some of them?”

Danny frowned and placed a nut into his mouth. Eileen’s phone vibrated. It was a text from Murt.

sorry have headed off

Eileen looked at the phone, then at the boys. She went upstairs to the bathroom. The window was up off the sash, the cold coming in. She looked around the empty, small space, drew back the crackly sheath of the shower curtain even though she knew there was nothing behind it. She closed the window.

“Murt,” she whispered, like he was just out of sight. “Murt. Murt.”

She rang Murt and it went to voice mail. She texted.

did u just go out the window??

She went back downstairs, out into the drive. Her car was empty. There was no one out on the street. The phone beeped.

yeah

why??

took a notion just had to go sorry hun

Eileen went back inside and rang Murt, but it went to voice mail again. After a few minutes, Murt sent a flurry of texts.

am grand laughing at this now

just wanted to see if i cld get down off shed roof into garden

& i did it was fun

jogging home feels good stitch in side tho

be sorry if i fell & done an angle

ankle! Good day had fun

Eileen did not reply straightaway. She texted when she was on her way to Naughton’s.

hun id say your not right in the head but u know that!! into work now x

Over the next couple of weeks Eileen took Murt for drives. They went to Enniscrone beach and stood on a dune crest and watched the Atlantic gather in long, wobbling furrows and smack onto the shore. Eileen took Murt to the dole to sign on, took him to the cineplex to watch the feature they mutually adjudged the dumbest-looking, took him to the pharmacist for his refills, into town for new shoes. Christmas came and went. Eileen gave Murt a Jack & Jones shirt of gray denim.

One day Murt rang her for a change, and Eileen’s body braced as if she were a passenger in a swerving car.

“Jesus Christ,” Murt said.

“Yeah?” Eileen croaked.

“Jamie’s got that Duane one pregnant.”

“Oh, Lord,” Eileen said.

“Nuge is taking us out tonight for drinks. I thought maybe.”

“I’ll see,” Eileen said.

“If you wanted,” Murt said.

“No, I’ll see,” Eileen said. “I just might need to switch a shift around.”

When Eileen walked into Kennedy’s she found Nugent, Murt, Jamie, and Sara at the very back of the lounge. Breedge, Murt and Jamie’s mother, was there, too. She was a white-haired and thin woman, seated securely between her sons, the way a mother has every right to be.

“Congratulations,” Eileen blurted, at everyone.

Sara stood up, took in a big breath, exhaled. “This is mad,” she said, and hugged Eileen, something like delirium in the whites of her eyes. Jamie absently lifted a leg to let Sara sit back down beside him. Eileen looked at Murt, handsome in the shirt she’d got him, a hand on the little mound of his paunch as if he were the one who was pregnant. At the very end of the table Nugent was already rising.

“Sit down, Eileen, and I will get you a drink.”

“Sure I’ll get one myself.”

“You will not,” Nugent said. “What do you drink?” He looked at Murt. “What does she drink?”

“Stop, a gin-and-tonic so,” Eileen said.

“Good girl.”

“Hello, Eileen,” Breedge said.

“Hello.”

“Can you believe this?”

“I can’t!”

“This is some arrangement. What was it you used to always say, Jamie, about having kids?” Breedge said, looking sidelong at her son.

“I used to always say you should need a license,” Jamie said.

“And now look,” Breedge said. “See how it happens. It just happens, Jamie.”

“I stand by the principle,” Jamie said.

“Well, it’s happened now, and that’s that,” Breedge said. She had long fingers with smashed-looking knuckles. The way her hands wreathed her drink made Eileen think of the roots of trees that crack out of and then fuse with the pavement.

“It all’s going on,” Breedge said. “It just keeps barrelling ahead.”

“I’m guessing this would be life you’re talking about, Mother,” Jamie said.

“You. A daddy. I don’t know,” Breedge said. “What do you think, Eileen?”

“Well, you can’t prepare. Not really, I don’t think. But they are going to be fine,” she said, looking at Jamie and Sara.

“Of course they’ll be fine,” Breedge said.

“We won’t be fine,” Jamie said. “We’ll be absolutely fucked.”

“Shut up,” Sara said, nudging him in the ribs.

“Boys do tend to melancholy,” Breedge said. “Let him get it out of his system now and he might be in a right shape for when that baby arrives.”

Murt cleared his throat. “Well done, but,” he said to Jamie, and raised his drink.

“The best day of your life,” Breedge said, “is the day you realize it’s no longer your own.”

Eileen drank too much because everyone drank too much. It was Nugent’s fault; Nugent was being stealthily and lethally generous, nipping to the bar to conjure rounds between rounds, preëmpting other people as their turn to buy approached. When he wasn’t buying drinks, he was sitting at his spot at the far end of the horseshoe-shaped booth, his rigid hands curled either side of his drink, sipping with a straw at his Jameson-and-ice and looking so pleased with himself he seemed almost tearful. Eileen went to the toilet and came back to the bar determined to order a round, her drunkenness like a patiently smoldering fire in the back of her head that she did not, as yet, have to address putting out. Jamie was there, heavy-lidded, breathing through his nose like a stabled horse.

“Your mother is in some way with the news,” Eileen said.

“She is processing,” Jamie said.

“You are going to be fine.”

“Are you fine?”

“What?”

“Never mind me. Are you fine, Eileen?”

“I am.”

“I know you are,” Jamie said, his mouth gone beady, unrepentant with drink. “You are armor-plated.”

“I’m what?” Eileen said.

“You are a tank, Eileen. You just smash over things and you keep going.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Murt. That boy is struggling, in case you didn’t know.”

“I do know.”

“If I were in your shoes I know what I’d be saying. I’d be saying that I am trying to help. But you have to take your boot off his throat. Just for a little while you have to take your boot off his throat.”

Eileen’s body felt like a heavy coat she had neglected to remove, the blood in her face thick and clambering. She went to speak but her throat shied.

“Murt is my best friend. I care so much about Murt,” she was able to finally say in a thin, winded voice, as if she were trying to talk after a bout of sprinting.

“You care for him, Eileen,” Jamie said, “but you have no pity for him. He is what he is. He is not like the rest of us. You have to accept that. You have to have a little pity.”

“I don’t know what Murt wants. But I don’t think he wants pity, not from me,” Eileen said.

Jamie turned himself around, placed an elbow on the bar. He looked toward their booth. The table was honeycombed with empties. Sara, Breedge, Murt, and Nugent all looked wired and exhausted.

“Murt will be moving back in with the mother shortly, did he tell you?”

“No,” Eileen said.

“That’s why she’s come out, really. Babby aside. It’s difficult, but they are friends again.”

“I think that’s good, anyway,” Eileen said.

“Do you know why Murt went back into the hospital? Do you know why he came to stay with Nuge and us, which was, by the way, my idea?”

Eileen said nothing.

“Living with Murt? Give me a break. Just try it someday, Eileen. She rang me up the night he went back into the hospital and you know what she said to me? She said, ‘He had to go.’ She said, ‘It was me or it was him.’ Imagine having to say that about your own son.”

“Think what you like about me,” Eileen said.

“You tell me what’s best for that boy,” Jamie said.

Eileen said nothing. Jamie took a drink of his drink.

“There is no best.”

The following week Murt moved back in with his mother and a fortnight after that Jamie and Sara got the go-ahead to move in with Sara’s folks. The Duanes despised Jamie but for the sake of the baby they assented to having him under their roof. At Nugent’s behest, Jamie left his car in his uncle’s care. Nugent pleaded a convincing case: there was plenty of parking space and he would be happy to keep the tank topped up and take it for the occasional spin. Nugent’s own car was an unsalvageable relic, the tires flat, gummed to the ground. It was Jamie’s car Nugent used. He tried a week after Jamie and Sara left, on a Sunday evening, guiding the car into the cobweb-raftered garage at the back of his house and running a length of amputated garden hose from the exhaust pipe in through the driver’s window. He drank heavily beforehand and swallowed a dozen sleeping pills. Once he had the engine on, he tried to cover up the gap in the driver’s window with masking tape, but peeling away the required length of tape proved too difficult, what mobility he still possessed baffled by the pills and the booze and the carbon monoxide swilling around his head: eventually he passed out, but he vomited the pills in his sleep and the garage was not an airtight enough structure to accommodate a sufficient buildup of gas. It was Murt who found him. He was dropping in a spare plate of roast dinner from his mother’s and just said he knew, coming through the unlocked front door of the house, some charge to the untidy emptiness within: a clear bag of defrosted chicken thighs puddling in the sink, a cup with a cracked handle lying in a cold splat of tea on the floor, the door out to the back ajar.

“The garage door was down. Do you remember if the garage door is ever usually down? I don’t know, but maybe that was it. Subliminally, maybe it was like I registered that. I went out and realized I could hear an engine. I got the door up and he was within, in the car. He looked inhuman. Face on him like week-old cat shit.”

Murt telling this to Eileen the Friday after he found Nugent, Nugent stabilized in the I.C.U. in Galway, breathing on his own but still very frail, waking only briefly and not communicating when he did, the doctors as yet dicey on the prospective degree of brain damage, organ damage, everything. Eileen and Murt were in Staunton’s, Eileen on Sprite, Murt on Guinness. Eileen had the day off. Murt had enrolled in an evening writing class held in the secondary school, and had a session later.

“Jamie’s awful cut up about the car.”

“You would be,” Eileen said.

“I think he feels duped.”

“How’s Sara?”

“And this one is made of ancient crystals that detoxify the air and remove all the money from your pocket.”

“She’s good. They’d the first scan. The what you call. The sonogram. The womb. Might as well be footage of the moon.” Murt supped his Guinness. “Jamie’s insisting now he wants to sell the car. He says getting into it feels like climbing into someone’s tomb.”

“Nugent’s alive.”

“He gave it some try, though.”

“He won’t get much for that yoke at this stage,” Eileen said. “Scrappage, is my guess. Come up tonight, though. Mark’s birthday. We’re having people.”

“He says there’s a cursed energy to the car now. A malignant charge, when he gets in,” Murt said.

“How’s the writing class?”

“The class is fine. Sound skins. Everyone is seventy, but they bring in homemade scones every week.”

“Well, there you go,” Eileen said.

The party had been going for several hours by the time Murt showed. Eileen saw his head bobbing in the crowded sitting room. She picked up a bottle of Guinness and made her way toward him, stepping carefully over Ashleigh, sprawled with four other kids on the ground in front of the TV, refereeing who went next on the Xbox.

Murt saw her, put his head down, shouldered a channel toward her.

“Brought these with me if you don’t mind,” Murt said. Two women and a man were following him. They were all old.

“Oh, God, of course not, love!”

“This is Freda, this is Margaret, and this is Tom,” Murt said. “Everybody, this is Eileen.”

The women were smiling but looked a little apprehensive. Around them people heedlessly jostled and cawed.

“Come on and I’ll get you a drink,” Eileen said gently.

“Go on, they’re my crowd to babysit, I’ll get them a drink,” Murt said.

Eileen let him go. Mark appeared beside her, slid his arm around her waist. “Who on earth invited the biddies?”

“Murt brought them.”

“Murt. Well, fair play,” Mark said.

Some of Mark’s friends produced a guitar and a squeezebox. They played “Sally MacLennane” and “The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn,” “Johnny Jump Up” and “Solsbury Hill” and “Leave Me Alone.”

Mark found Danny hiding out in his bedroom, and cajoled him downstairs, trumpet in hand. Danny was dressed for bed, striped pajama bottoms and an Argentina jersey with MESSI 10 on the back. He stood in the little clearing in the living room where the other musicians were seated, laconically tuning and adjusting their instruments. Danny kept his head down and transferred his weight from foot to foot, working a kind of stage stoicism. People began to shout “Come on, lad!” and “Go on, Danny!,” Mark proudly trying to shush people. Danny tapped his foot tentatively until the crowd noise dropped to a murmur, and with no ceremony whomped out a couple of big baggy notes, just to settle the air around him. “Hang on, now,” he said. He set his stance again, and began to play. He wagged his shoulders in time with the music, his cheeks inflating and hollowing, the exertions corrugating his brow, but his eyes, even as they jumped around, maintained an ironical gaze, unimpressed and forbearing, as if the noise filling up the room had nothing to do with him. But he was concentrating, you could see it in his fingers—the way they caged and danced against the trumpet’s curved and tapered body, which opened out into the startling, brassy, orchidaceous mouth of the bell.

He’d played this one before. Eileen liked it.

Tom—the man who’d come in with Murt—was standing beside Eileen, nursing a bottle of Coors. He had the solid, weather-beaten features and wary demeanor of a farmer on a visit to town.

“Now, that’s good,” Tom said.

“He is good,” Eileen said.

“Chet Baker,” Tom said.

“What?”

“The tune. It’s by Chet Baker. ‘Let’s Get Lost.’ That’s the good stuff, Eileen.”

“How are you finding Murt?”

“It’s good to have new blood in the group. Lord knows we need periodic freshening up.”

“Is he any good?”

“At what?”

“At the writing, I suppose.”

Tom smiled. “I’d say Colm Tóibín won’t be quaking in his boots anytime soon. But sure look, as long as you’re getting something out of it. He’s a fine young man, all told. Getting something out of it is the main thing. That’s why the rest of us are there.”

“How long have you been in the group?”

“Oh, now. Twelve years, I’d say. We’ve a decent core of regulars. Adherents, like them two lunatics.” Tom nodded at the women, who were standing with Murt. The women were talking and Murt was watching them, smiling, intent. “Other ones come and go, younger ones. Women mainly, of course. There’s only two regular men, myself included, and a good ten ladies. It’s harder for the young to stick with things. They’ve other tacks to be chasing, sooner or later.”

“Twelve years,” Eileen said. “That’s a fair stint.”

“We are the terminal cases now, is what we tell ourselves. We’d a smashing woman, died of cancer coming on a year ago. She was a fine woman and she was a very gifted poet. First of the set to go. That’s the joke now. We are in it to the end.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Eileen said.

“Don’t be.” Tom said. “That’s life. But it doubles your resolve in some way, do you know?”

Eileen said nothing, because he didn’t require an answer. Tom took a drink of his beer.

“That boy can play something beautiful. You must be proud,” Tom said, and Eileen thought that even though Danny was good, he was perhaps not so good that it merited this string of compliments. Eileen figured the man was just being agreeable, decently filling the silence, the way you had to with a stranger.

“What else would I be?” Eileen said. ♦