Fiction • Colin Barrett
Bat is hungover, Bat is late. At the rear of the Maxol service station he heels the kickstand of his Honda 150 and lets the cycle’s chrome blue body slant beneath him until its weight is taken by the stand. Bat dismounts, pries off his helmet—black tinted visor, luminescent yellow cobra decal pasted to the dome—and a scuzzy cascade of dark hair plummets free to his ass.
Bat makes for the station’s restroom. The restroom is little bigger than a public telephone box. Its windowless confines contain a tiny sink and cracked mirror, a naked bulb and lidless shitter operated by a fitfully responsive flush handle. There is not a single sheaf of bog roll anywhere.
A big brown daddy longlegs pedals airily in the sink basin. Bat watches the creature describe a flustered circle, trapped. He could palm splat the thing out of existence but with a mindful sweep of his hand instead sends it unscathed over the rim.
Bat gathers his mane at the nape, slinks a blue elastic band from his wrist and fashions a ponytail, as Dungan, his supervisor, insists. Bat handles his hair delicately. Its dense length is crackly and stiff, an inextricable nest of flubs, snarls, and knots, due to the infrequency with which Bat submits to a wash.
Bat’s head hurts. He drank six beers on the roof of his house last night, which he does almost every night now. The pain is a rooted throb, radiating outward, like a skull-sized toothache, and his eyes mildly burn; working his contact lenses in this morning, he’d subjected his corneas to a prolonged and shaky-handed thumb fucking. A distant, dental instrument drone fills his ears like fluid. Hangovers exacerbate Bat’s tinnitus.
He runs the H and C taps. Saliva-temperatured and -textured water splurge from both. He splashes his face and watches the water drip like glue from his chin.
Bat was never a good-looking lad, even before Tansey cracked his face in half, he knows that. His features are and always have been round and nubby, irremediably homely, exuding all the definition of a bowl of mashed-up spuds. His eyes, at least, are distinctive, though not necessarily in a good way; they are thick lashed, purplishly pupiled, and primed glintingly wide. They suggest urgent, unseemly appeal. You look constantly as if in want, his old dear chided him all up through childhood. Even now she will occasionally snap at him—what is it, Eamonn?—apropos of nothing, Bat merely sitting there, watching TV or tuning his guitar or hand-rolling a ciggy for her.
Nothing, Bat will mutter.
You are a mutterer, Eamonn, the old dear will insist. You always were, she’ll add, by way of implying she does not ascribe all blame for that to the boot to the face.
The boot to the face. Nubbin Tansey, may he rest in pieces. Munroe’s chipper. Years gone now.
Bat jabs his cheek with his finger, pushes in. His jaw still clicks when he opens it wide enough.
Six separate operations, 92 percent articulation recovered, and the brunt of the visible damage surgically effaced but for a couple of minute white divots in his left cheek and a crooked droop to the mouth on that side. It’s slight but distinct, the droop, a nipped outward twisting of the lip, an unhinging, that makes him look always a little gormless. Damage abides beneath the surface. Bat can feel by their feelinglessness those pockets of frozen muscle and inert tissue where the nerves in his face are blown for good.
Bat had been known as Bat for years, the nickname derived from his surname, Battigan, but after the boot and the droop a few smart-arses took to calling him Sly, as in Sly Stallone. Sly didn’t take, thank fuck; he was too entrenched in the town consciousness as Bat.
None but the old dear calls him Eamonn now.
Bat palms more water onto his face, slaps his cheeks to get the blood shifting. The beers don’t help, of course, but the fact is the headaches come regardless, leadenly routine now. In addition there are the migraines, mercifully rarer though much more vicious, two-day-long blowouts of agonizing snow blindness that at their worst put Bat whimpering and supine on the floor of his bedroom, a pound of wet cloth mashed into his eye sockets to staunch, however negligibly, the pain.
The doctors insist the head troubles have nothing to do with it, but Bat knows they are another bequeathal of the boot to the face.
He leaves the restroom and keys himself through the service door into the staff room. He deposits the bike helmet on the couch, unpeels his leather jacket, registers with a pulse of mortification the spicy whang peeling off his own hide.
On the staff-room counter he spies, amid a row of items, a stick of women’s roll-on; must be Tain’s. He picks it up, worms his fist into each sleeve of his Maxol shirt and hastily kneads his pits with the spearminty-smelling stuff. As he places the roll-on back on the counter he notices a curled black hair adhering to the scented ball. He tweezes it off and flicks it to the floor.Dungan, the store manager, is out front.
Dungan is old. Fifties, sixties, whatever. He’s the sole adult and authority figure in a work environment otherwise populated by belligerently indolent youngsters.
“Bat,” Dungan says.
“Take your particular timepiece. Wind the big hand forward fifteen minutes. Keep it there. You might show up on the dot once in your life.”
Humped above the cash register, Dungan resembles nothing so much as his own freshly revived corpse. His skin is loose and blanched, its pigmentation leached of some vital essence, and what remains of his thin gray hair is drawn in frailly distinct comb lines across his head, mortuary neat. His glasses are tinted, enshading the eyes. But you can tell Dungan is alive because the man is always snufflingly, sputteringly ill, his maladies minor but interminable; head colds, bronchial complaints, and dermal eruptions hound him through the seasons’ dims and magnifications.
“What needs doing?” Bat sighs.
Dungan looks over the rims of his glasses. The white of one eye is a blood splatter of detonated capillaries.
“Sleeves. Sleeves, Bat. What did I say about sleeves?” He nods at Bat’s arms. “The tattoos can’t be on display, lad. Plain black or white undershirts in future, please.”
“But everyone knows me,” Bat says.
“Professionalism is an end in itself,” Dungan opines. “Now. There’s six pallets of dry stock out back that need shelving, and the rotisserie wants a scrub after that. We’ll just have to try and keep you out of sight as much as we can.”
First break. Ten minutes. Bat is first out to the lot, peeling chicken fat–slicked Marigolds from his hands. The lot is a three-quarters-enclosed concrete space done up to suggest a picnic area, where, the idea is, road-weary motorists can eat or stretch their limbs in what appears to Bat to be a rather bleak simulation of pastoral seclusion. There are rows of wooden tables and benches bolted into the cement (the obscenities carved into their lacquered surfaces only visible close up) and a ring-fenced aluminum wreck of a play area for children. Scruffy clots of weeds have grown up and died in the fistulas along the crumbling perimeter of the lot’s paving. A mural painted onto the lot wall depicts a trio of cartoon rabbits in waistcoats and top hats capering against a field of green dotted with splotch-headed blue and red and yellow flowers. The untalented muralist had not been able to set the pupils of the rabbits’ eyes into proper alignment, afflicting all three with various severities of cross-eye.
Bat perches atop the fat plastic lid of an empty skip, guzzles a Coke, and regards the rabbits. The longer you look the more subtly crazed their expressions appear.
Presently Bat is joined by Tain Moonan and Rob “Heg” Hegardy.
Tain is fifteen, Hegardy eighteen.
Both are summer recruits, and both will soon be finished up; Hegardy is returning to college in Dublin as a second-year computer science student and Tain will be heading into junior cert year at the local convent.
Hegardy ducks out into the morning air whistling a jaunty tune. He flashes a grin at Bat as he approaches, snaps a thin white spindle from his breast pocket, and sketches an elaborate bow as he proffers what turns out to be a perfectly rolled joint.
“Nice,” Bat snorts.
“Let’s start the morning and kill the day,” Hegardy says.
Tain rolls her eyes.
“All right, Tain,” Bat says.
Tain only grunts. She studies Hegardy frankly as he crooks the joint between his lips, sparks his lighter, and with a forceful, fish-face sucking motion pipettes a trail of purple smoke wisps into the air.
“Busy out front?” Bat asks. Tain and Heg are on forecourt duty.
“Quiet enough,” Hegardy says and passes the joint to Bat. Hegardy has a foot in height on Bat, a handsome, olive-oil complexion inherited from his half-Iberian mother, the wingspan and streamlined solidity of an athlete—though he takes no interest in sports—and a pretty wad of crinkly black hair, like a black lad’s. He’s about the most laid-back lad Bat has ever encountered; nothing fazes or riles him.
Tain hops onto the skip beside Bat, scoots over until she’s right beside him. She picks up one of his Marigold gloves and tugs it down over her hand. She jabs Bat with her elbow, nods at the joint.
“Pass it on,” she says.
Bat gives her his best look of grown-up disapproval.
“This’ll stunt your growth, missy.”
“Listen to the voice of experience,” Hegardy says.
Tain rolls her eyes, sneers, but declines a retort. She pulls her peroxided hair out of her face. The roots are grown out, black as jet. Bat gives her the joint. She takes it with her yellow-gloved hand. A brief toke and she is immediately seized by a bout of convulsive coughing. Hegardy’s eyes pop in delight and his mouth gapes in a mute O of impending hilarity. He leans in close so Tain can see. She swings a sneaker at his crotch, Hegardy bouncing backward on his heels to elude the effort.
“Handle your shit, Moonan,” Hegardy barks in an American drill-sergeant voice.
“It’s handled, dickhead,” Tain says, holding her throat and working out a few clarifying grunts. Composure restored, she begins to pick absently at the small red nub of a zit on her chin.
Bat looks from Tain to Heg. For the past three months Bat has watched these two smile, joke, snark, preen, and goad each other with escalating intensity, up until three weekends ago, when the tone of their exchanges changed abruptly. For a few days the two were terse, even clumsy in each other’s company. Now, while things have relaxed into their original rhythm somewhat, their interactions possess an edge, a spikiness, that was previously absent. This worries Bat. Though Bat likes Hegardy, he is pretty sure the lad did something—and may perhaps still be doing something—with the schoolgirl. Because he likes Hegardy, Bat has shied from pressing him upon the matter, lest Hegardy admit he has in fact committed something perilously close to, if not in fact, statutory rape. (Which is what it would be. Bat looked it up. With no little trepidation he ventured to the town library and at one of the computer terminals, hunched forward and glancing compulsively over his shoulder, Googled what he considered the pertinent terms.)
“When’s your last day?” Bat asks.
“Not till Sunday next,” Hegardy says, “but college starts pretty much straight the week after. So I’m going to have a couple of going-away pints in the Yellow Belly this Friday. Don’t say you won’t be there, Bat.”
“This Friday?” Bat says.
Caught off guard, Bat is too brain-dead to temporize; no excuse presents itself through the double daze of residual hangover and incipient dope high. Bat no longer socializes in town; no longer socializes, full stop. He does not want to tell Hegardy this, though doubtless Hegardy has an inkling.
“We’ll see,” Bat says.
Tain is inspecting Bat’s arm on her side.
“This one’s boss,” she says, dabbing a yellow finger upon Bat’s kraken tattoo, etched in the hollow of his forearm. It depicts a green squidlike monstrosity emerging from a bowl of blue water circumscribed by a fringe of froth, an old-time ship with masts and sails encoiled within the creature’s tentacles, about to be torn apart.
“Boss,” Bat says.
“Yeah,” Tain says. She traces a circle in the crook of his arm, and Bat feels a pinch as she nips with her fingers at his flesh.
“You got good veins, Bat,” she says, then holds out her own arms for display. “Big hardy cables of motherfuckers. You can’t barely even see mine.”
Bat hesitates, leans in for a look. The down on Tain’s arms glints in the morning light. Her skin is smooth and pale. Tain’s right—her veins are barely there, detectable only as buried, granular traces of blue in the solid white of her flesh. There’s a whiff of spearmint coming up out of her sleeve. Bat tries to ignore it.
“Why’s that?” Bat says.
“Tain must have a condition,” Heg caws.
Tain ignores the sally.
“Look. Your veins are blue or green, whatever. But why’s that, when your blood is red?” she says. Bat thinks about this. “That must be because of the lining or something. The veins’ linings are blue and the blood runs red inside.”
“Blood ain’t red,” Tain says. “It turns red when it hits air, oxygenates. You know what color it actually is?”
Bat shrugs. “I’d be guessing, Tain,” he says.
“Bat’s blood runs one shade,” Heg intones in a gravelly, film-trailer voice.
Bat looks from Tain to Heg and back.
“Black as night,” Tain growls in her version of the film-trailer voice.
Heg takes a final drag of the joint, drops it, and sweeps it with his foot into a sewer grille, eliminating whatever tiny chance there might have been that Dungan would happen upon the incriminating butt and work out what it is they get up to out here—though that haggard bitch, as Tain refers to him, is nobody’s idea of a deductive savant. Bat nods appreciatively. Heg is a thorough lad, cautious. Maybe he is not up to anything with Tain.
“Let’s get back,” Heg says to Tain.
“Fuck’s sake,” she mutters and pops herself off the skip. She heads in and Heg follows, turning at the last to catch Bat’s eye.
“No, but come. It won’t be the same otherwise.”
Dinner is boiled spuds, beans, and frozen fish. Bat bolts his supper from a sideboard in the kitchen under the solemn surveillance of two bullet-headed eight-year-old boys. The boys are seated side by side by the opened back door, the old dear looming above them, wielding an electric razor and comb; the old dear cuts hair on the side, a home operation job, her clientele comprised mainly of the youngest offspring of her extended family.
Tonight’s customers have the wide-spaced eyes and aggrieved, jutting mouths hereditary to the Minions. The Minions are cousins from the passed father’s side, a clan notorious locally for its compulsive run-ins with the law and general ingenuity for petty civil dissension. Bad seeds, though Bat suspects the old dear is perversely proud of the association.
The old dear is shearing the boys simultaneously, in stages, not one after the other; she does the left side of one lad’s head, then the other lad’s left, then right/right, top/top, and finally back/back. Kitchen towels are draped across the boys’ shoulders and a tawny moat of chopped hair encircles their chair legs. The back door is open so the old dear can smoke as she works, the draft escorting the smoke of her rollie out into the evening, away from the boys’ lungs.
Above Bat’s head a wall-mounted TV plays the Aussie soap Home and Away, but the boys’ eyes do not leave Bat as he works at his dinner. The mane confuses little kids, who assume only women have long hair (and there’s no woman in town with hair as long as Bat’s). He’s conscious also they may be eyeing the balky hydraulics of his jaw as he chews.
One of the boys slowly raises a hand, extends his forefinger, and begins boring at a nostril, a movement that necessitates a slight shift in his posture.
“Don’t be moving,” Bat says, “or she’ll have your lug off,” wrenching on one of his own earlobes for effect. “She has a necklace of severed ears upstairs, made out of the lugs of little boys who wouldn’t stay still.”
The lad stops boring but keeps his finger socketed in his nose. His eyes widen.
“That’s not true,” the other lad puffs indignantly.
“Shut up, the lot of you,” the old dear says, though of course she doesn’t refute Bat’s claim.
“What’s your name?” Bat says to the lad who spoke.
A dim memory of a double christening, moons back, that Bat didn’t go to. “And that lad excavating his face beside you is JoJo, so.”
“Yeah,” Trevor says.
“And where’s your mammy gone, Trevor?” Bat asks.
“The pub,” JoJo says.
“Is she out looking for a brother or sister for youse?” Bat says, grinning at the old dear as the boys look on, puzzled.
“Dearbhla,” the old dear sighs. “Lord bless us and save us but you may not be yards off the mark there, Eamonn. Heads down!” she barks, and the Minion boys, perfectly in sync, fire their chins into their chests.
Bat smiles. They can be tough and they can be rough, but there’s not a delinquent alive, budding or fully formed, the old dear can’t crone into submission.
Before the roof and beers and bed, Bat hits the road. A night spin, deep into the countryside’s emptinesses. The Honda is no power racer, but watching the dimpled macadam hurtle away beneath the monocular glare of his headlight, Bat feels he is moving too fast to exist; as he dips into and leans out of the crooks and curves of the road, he becomes the crooks and curves. A bristling silence hangs over the deep adjacent acres—the pastures, woodlands, and hills sprawled out all around him. It goes up and up and up, the silence, and Bat can hear it, above even the hot scream of the engine.His nerves are gently sparking by the time he lopes across the mossed asphalt shingles of the roof, cradling a six-pack. Bat plants his back against the chimney and drinks and drinks and waits for the moment the night becomes too cold, the air like a razor working itself to acuity against the strop of his arms; only then will he descend through the black square of his bedroom window.
The week rolls on. Friday night, the town center. Bat in leathers, a pair of preliminary beers washed down to fortify the nerves. It’s been a while. He parks the Honda in an alley by the bank. Shadowed figures linger outside the Yellow Belly’s entrance. Smokers. Bat approaches with his head lowered.
“Fuckin’ Battigan. Bat,” a voice says, surprised.
“Man, Bat,” the other says.
“Lads,” Bat says. The lads are a bit younger than Bat; little brothers to those who would have been Bat’s peers. One’s a Connolly, spotty face like a dropped Bolognese, the other’s a barrel-bodied, redheaded Duffy.
“Which Duffy are you?” Bat asks.
“Jamie,” the lad replies.
“Michael was in my class,” Bat says. “We called him Scaldyballs.”
Connolly’s face erupts in laughter. “We call this cunt the same.”
“The ginger gene is dying out, so they say,” Bat informs Duffy, darkly.
Duffy braces his shoulders, looks at Connolly, who communicates something back with his eyes.
“What has you out anyway, Bat?” Connolly asks.
“Rob Hegardy’s fucking-off-back-to-college do.”
“The brain boxes are off to brain box land,” Connolly sighs. “That time of year, I suppose.”
“Leaving us thick fucks to this dump,” Duffy scowls.
“All right,” Bat says, stoppering the conversation. Inside he takes the couple of short steps up into the warm red heart of the bar. The main room is a long rectangle, half-familiar faces eddying in its telescoped space. Some faces watch him; some don’t.
Bat thinks: I am here for Heg’s fucking thing, so I’ll go find Heg.
Heg is at the farthest point at the rear of the bar. He is surrounded.
“Bat! Christ, good man!” Heg roars, and his companions’ faces turn to take in Bat. Half a dozen lads Heg’s age, and the same number in girls again. The girls; a dark-haired one stands by Heg. Cheekboned and smokily glowering, from her emanates a demeanor of regal peevishness, nose pinned up in the air. There is the briefest shift of light in her irises; she fixes Bat with the penetrating impersonality of a security camera. Bat drops his eyeline to the floor. He wants to hurl his body at her feet, repent his hideous pelt.
“Drink?” Bat squeaks, hoping Heg hears.
“C’mere . . . lads, you know this fuckin legend of a man,” Heg loafs an arm across Bat’s shoulders. He’s had a few, Heg, his gaze lolling and sliding like syrup as he tries to fix upon Bat.
“Na-na na-na na-na na-na, Batman!” Heg roars. Bat winces, shucks off the deadweight of Heg’s arm.
“Pint, Heg?” he says.
Bat cuts a paddling diagonal through the crowd, riding up along the polished grain of the counter like a drowning man gaining the shore. He actually grips the counter. He orders two pints—one for himself, one for Heg—and downs the first in a single ferocious engorgement. He slams the empty onto the counter as a head rush ignites behind his eyes; he sees sparks, and a wavelet of nausea migrates from the middle of his face into the pit of his stomach. He orders another pint.When he turns, a girl who looks like Tain is facing him. It is Tain, in makeup, in a dress. Bat’s eyes drop in a skimming horizontal, compiling fugitive impressions before he can restrain himself. The dress is a shiny kind of silvery red thing, a square of absent material exposing a section of Tain’s chest. The dress’s hem ends midway down her thighs. Tain’s legs are bare. Bat has never seen Tain’s legs before. Her knees are miraculously, mundanely kneelike—blunt, knobby, and flushed scalding red, as if in embarrassment at so public an exposure.
Bat gets a grip, forces eye contact with the girl.
“I know, I know,” Tain says mournfully. She’s blushing.
She has a parcel wrapped in silver paper under her arm.
“Present for himself?” Bat says.
Tain holds it out and rotates it assessingly in her grip.
“Pretty gay of me, I think.”
“Why would it be gay?”
“It’s . . .” She glances across at the crowd surrounding Heg. “Who’s that one with him?”
“Don’t know,” Bat says. “His sister, maybe?”
“Fuck, no, that’s not his sister. Are you being funny? I’ve seen his sister, she’s a trainee vet in London. That’s not his sister.”
The dimensions of the parcel and the way it bends in a U shape as Tain tortures it in her grip—Bat guesses it’s a book. Bat is no reader. His eyesight has always been poor; the other derivation of his nickname. He wears contacts now but as a kid he suffered for years, believing the scumbled, dripping appearance of text on a page was simply how words appeared to everyone. It seemed perfectly in keeping with the variform sadism of classwork that you had to try and prize sense from the unintelligible fuzz of type on a page. The teachers thought him thick—and Bat was thick—but it was only when some of the other kids dubbed him Book Sniffer on account of how close he put his face to the page that he realized something was up.
“What you get him?” Bat means the book.
“Has anyone else got him anything?” she says, still craning toward the group.
“I got him nothing other than this pint,” Bat says. “And I’d offer you one but you’re too young.”
Tain swivels with slow decisiveness back to Bat. She makes a fist and wedges it against her hip. “Christ’s sakes, just get me a vodka and lime, Bat.”
“In a tick,” he murmurs, lowering his head and shouldering back into the crowd, brimming pint in either paw.
Forty minutes later and Bat has put away three drinks to the group’s single round. Tain is several bodies beyond his left elbow, stuck making small talk to a plump boy in black. The lad keeps placing and replacing on his ear the wire frame of his glasses. Most of the crowd are from out of town; Heg’s college mates, dropped down for the weekend. The dark beauty, as still and mute as a hologram, must be one of them too, though the rest of the party ignores her as she ignores them, even Heg; that she has deigned to stand in his proximity is the only suggestion of any association between them. But then Bat, too, has largely kept his trap shut, his conversational contributions amounting to timed groans and dry whistles as one or another anecdote winds to its climax. They are all talking about and around college, the communal life they share there; the talk is an involved braid of in-jokes and contextual nuggets and back references. Bat feels doltish—too big, too bluntly dimensioned, a thickset golem hewn from the scrabbled, sodden dirt of Connaught. His jaw throbs—the teeth set into his jaw throb.
Heg is drunk, his expression adrift in some boggy territory between gloating and concussed. Abruptly the hologram substantiates itself—the tall beauty leans in and begins kissing Heg most vociferously on the mouth.
He kind of writhes around in her grip. A girl with an overbite breaks into a braying laugh. Bat gently shoulders his way out of the group and wheels off toward the jacks. His nape bristles; he feels the drag, like a faint current, of someone’s attention and turns. Tain scowling, in hot pursuit.
She still has the present, jammed down into her handbag.
“I feel like a wanker,” she says.
“Don’t,” Bat says. “Heg has us all just standing around like gobshites.”
A hand on Bat’s shoulder. He flinches.
“Fuck me, man, how’s it going?”
Bat’s grip tenses around a phantom pint. He gulps. But it’s only Luke Minion. As it goes Luke is one of the more congenial strands of that brood of cousins. Luke has always had time for Bat; was witness to the boot to the face.
“It’s been an age, lad.”
“Who’s this?” Minion asks of Tain, an amused curl to the lip.
“I work with her. Tain. This is Luke.”
“You’re still out with the Maxol crowd.”
“It’s a living,” Bat says. “It is,” Minion says through his teeth. He runs a hand through his crow-colored cowlick of a widow’s peak. Most of the Minions are stocky and solidly hipped. Luke is rangy, with clear gray eyes.
Last Bat heard the man was running up mountains; there was talk of a sponsored tackle of Kilimanjaro. It never happened. Before that Luke had been living in a mobile home on the furthest acre of his family’s farm plot. He’d had a Czechoslovakian girl and a baba stowed away there for a while, but one day the pair woke up and the baba was dead.
“What you at these days?”
Minion’s eyebrows rise, “Bits and pieces.”
“In the Minion fashion,” Bat says, hearing the old dear in his tone.
“This guy,” Luke says to Tain. “You ever hear tell of how he wound up with that face?”
Tain looks to Bat.
Bat wonders if she can read the total misery in his visage.
“No,” she says brightly, looking more like a child, in her densely daubed mask of makeup, than ever before.
“Yeah,” Luke says, “sure, you’re only a young one.”
“Hitting the jacks,” Bat says, his throat going tight, like he’s just swallowed a plum gourd. The nausea has resurfaced in the other direction, a roiling ball of unpleasantness bubbling out of his gut. His mouth waters, and he tastes a flash of blood. He wipes his mouth with his sleeve. His head is sore; his head is always sore. The headaches tune down to a vestige, but they never truly go.The drinking doesn’t help, Bat thinks, but it does help.
As he slams open a cubicle door the possibility of throwing up seems fragilely close. He gropes the door shut behind him. A pitifully loud retch doubles him over; nothing follows but a gutty hawk, a hot trickle of bile. Bat retches until it plops from his lips into the jacks’ waiting mouth.
There in the cubicle, unbidden, floats up the remnant of a dream; a recurring dream, Bat knows intuitively, though this is the first time he has consciously recalled recalling it. The dream remnant is merely this, like a random, unfinished scene from a film: Bat is Bat, but in a different body. A Dungan-like body, wasted and bowlegged, older perhaps, though perhaps not. Certainly frailer, flimsier, and he, dream Bat, is walking around what must be this town. It’s just a street, an undistinguished strip of concrete paving flanked by generic buildings—and he’s wearing a mustard-seed suit. That’s what his mother—in the dream—calls the suit. The suit does not fit. It’s several sizes too large and the superfluous material billows and flumps comically around his limbs. And in the dream all Bat is doing is walking around and around and crying and crying and somewhere to the back of him—he can’t precisely tell—his old dear’s voice pursues him like a vindictive rain cloud, saying “Change the medication, change the medication.”
How long has he been having this fucking dream, he wonders?
And then his thoughts turn to the boot to the face; the last thing Bat himself recalls of that night was staggering through the door of Munroe’s takeaway with a hunger in his belly, his head down and headphones in, music blaring, scrolling through his playlist to see what song was cued up next. He woke up in hospital. The culprit was a five-foot-two spark plug went by Nubbin Tansey, and Luke Minion was there, saw it all unfold.
And now Tain is outside. Tain is on a stool by the bar, waiting for Bat to return. Bat squinches closed his eyes.
How long have I been having this fucking dream?
Tain is on a stool, and Minion, expert bar grifter, has inveigled her into buying him a drink—the first she’s ever ordered in a bar. The bar lad didn’t look at her twice as she put in the round. It makes Tain feel pathetically proud of herself. She’s on her fourth vodka and lime and has no more money. The odor of limes—spiked and soured by the gelid see-through spirit—is all she can smell. She’s watching Minion—the lad finicks with his stool, skims his palm round the lip of the seat like he’s searching for the sweet spot. Finally he hoists himself into position. He looks at her and launches in.
“It must’ve been up on the heels of four on a Saturday morning, and Munroe’s being one of the few eateries still open at that hour, it was fairly packed. I was queuing at the counter, hangover already coming on, waiting on a kebab and batter burger. Nubbin Tansey was up on one of the tabletops, making a holy fucking show of himself. Now Tansey was a short-arse but he was built through; physique of a jockey on steroids. He was well oiled, as we all were, looking wild and disheveled, his shirt hanging off him, buttons all burst off, Doc Martens scuffing the Formica as he whelped out a furious jig. His boys were crowing him on—there were five or six of them, big rowdy units—and the Turkish lads behind the counter weren’t going to risk stepping in, though good old Saleem, the manager, was threatening to call the pigs if Tansey didn’t get the fuck down fairly lively. Tansey, bald since seventeen, to go with the height deficiency, was amped up, face gone red and every vein in his skull popping, a solid wall of perspiration coming right off him and fizzing in the fluorescence as he jigged and jigged. Nervous little cheers coming up from all corners of the takeaway, hoping he’d stop. Then Tansey started out with these karate moves, firing the legs out and chop-sockying the air, which brought up further cheers. He was moving fair graceful for a man as scuttered as he was. And then he stops, a tacky sling of spit flapping from his chin. He wipes the spit and says to the boys, “I’m taking the head, the head, off the next cunt comes through that door,” and points at the entrance, a good six feet away from the edge of the tabletop he’s prancing on. Another cheer at Tansey’s declaration, though this time only from his boys. And for a while that was that, there was this little spell, thirty seconds, where everything got quiet, even Tansey seemed to be winding down. He’d gone into a squat and was sharing a private chuckle with one of his boys when the doorbell jingles, the jingle letting everyone know there’s a body coming through, and I saw the shock of jet hair, the leather jacket, and Bat’s battered runners. Not a chance to say nothing. Not that I believed, I suppose, that Tansey was actually going to follow through on his boast; shite talk and no follow through, I had it diagnosed. But the bell jingles, and in steps Bat, oblivious that he was the next cunt, elected by fate, and without a hesitation, without even stopping to see who he was going for, Tansey up and leapt. It was some fuck of a leap, credit to the lad, his leg straight as a rod leading his body, clearing that six feet and staving slap bang into the side of Bat’s head. Cleanest connect of a jaw you’ll ever see, Bat sent flying like a rag doll. Spun and flung. He smacked the wall and bounced back up off the floor and then down again in a buckled heap. And Tansey—Tansey landed perfectly on his feet. Some young wan had let out a scream but now there was no noise except for Tansey’s breathing. His eyes were lit, in a marvel at what he’d done. No noise but the air heaving in and out of him, and Bat facedown in a sprawl of hair and blood. Every last cunt there must’ve thought he was dead. I did.”
“Nubbin Tansey,” Tain says. “I don’t know him.”
“You wouldn’t,” Minion says. He was actually inspecting his nails now. “He’s dead. Been dead three years.”
“How’d he die?”
“Rigged a rope round the crossbeam in his folks’ shed and—” Minion takes his feet up off the floor. He hitches each shoe onto the bottom rung of his stool and leans forward until the stool tips over. He fires out the feet to land standing, twists, and catches the stool before it clatters to the floor.
“Jeez,” Tain said. She has placed the silver parcel flat on the counter and is now steadily picking away at a bit of Sellotape on the wrapping.
“No, no,” Minion insists. “None of that. Tansey—he was one of those ones with nothing good in him. He was a fucking head case. Paranoid, devious, a temper he couldn’t turn down. Would kick the shit out of you at the drop of a hat—and I mean you. The mother of his kid wouldn’t let him see the baby—he beat her to a pulp, cracked a bottle over her skull. He was one of them couldn’t stand being in his own skin, and couldn’t stand the rest of us neither.”
Tain takes a sip of her vodka and lime.
“Saddening?” Luke Minion says.
Tain bunches her lips together, shakes her head.
“Did Bat not get the guards on him?”
“The mother wanted to, and half the Minion clan wanted to kill the lad, they were just waiting on Bat’s say-so. But Bat never said nothing, didn’t even press charges. Tansey was one of them ones in and out of the county court every other day anyway—another stint wouldn’t have bothered him. There was a manner of settlement—the Tanseys footed the bill for the surgery Bat had to have after. But that was it, as far as retribution went, on Bat’s side. You’re his friend, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Tain says.
“You know him, then. I used to pick on him a lot when we were kids. We all did. And if I wanted an excuse I could say he was the type that asked for it, or didn’t know how not to ask for it. Slap him in the face nine times and he’d come right back for number ten.”
There’s a silence. Luke turns out from the bar, angles a sidling look at Tain.
“What age are you?” Luke says.
“You with Bat?” he says, and flicks a brutal gesture with one hand.
Tain colors. “It’s . . . it’s nothing like that.”“Well,” Luke drawls, “we could go somewhere and have you just sit on my face for an hour?”
“What the fuck,” Tain blurts, then bursts out laughing.
“Just a suggestion,” he says and offers a trivially unfussed shrug of the shoulder.
Tain looks toward Heg’s party. The dark beauty has collapsed in a despicably graceful heap on Heg, who can’t help but look like the smuggest prick in the world.
“That fella then, is it?” Minion said.
“Huh,” Tain says.
“That curly headed faggot with the ride welded to him. He’s what has you doleful. I can see.”
He has his hand now on her thigh, up under the hem and on the bare flesh.
“If it helps, this’ll be nothing other than meaningless,” he says.
So when Bat emerges from the jacks he stomps back toward Tain and this is what he sees: Minion wrapped round her, mouth on hers. She’s rolling her shoulders in tandem to Minion’s impassioned flinchings, though there’s something mechanistic and barely controlled in her reciprocation. It looks coercive, Bat thinks sadly, but with a kind of concluding satisfaction. Tonight was a mistake, emphatically so, and this display of frankly felonious lechery is a fitting cap. Bat waggles the big stupid shovels of his hands.Last words present themselves.
He could say: Bye, Heg, thanks for nothing, hope you and your fucking college buddies got a good laugh out of tonight.
He could say: Why, Tain, why be that fucking pathetic, you’re cleverer than that, and you’re cleverer than Heg too.
But he’ll say nothing, of course. His jaw throbs. It throbs with nothing. All he wants is a drink, but he can get that at home.
Bat puts the head down, hair enfolding him like a screen, and leaves the humans to the humans.
In the lane where his bike is parked, Bat runs a hand round the inside of the helmet to make sure no kids have pissed in it or stuck it with chewing gum. The helmet’s grotty foam lining slips tight as a calipers round his head. Ignition and Bat takes a moment to listen: the engine’s rumble, overlapping with its own echo, crashes like surf back off the lane’s narrow walls.
On the way home he zips by the Maxol station, and for the fuck of it he does a lap of the premises. He slows to a stop out back. In the scanty, grained moonlight and with his iffy sight he can still just about decipher the trio of painted rabbits on the wall. He thinks of the stoic mania of their botched gazes, and it is unnerving, now, to consider them presiding over the bleak emptiness of the lot, night after night after night.
Bat realizes he is silently mouthing Tain’s name over and over.
At home the old dear is in the dark, in the sitting room, TV light the only illumination. In repose, half-asleep, her face looks embalmed. It is not a restful expression. She has a wool blanket clutched up to her throat.
“I can smell you from the hallway,” she says.
“Thanks, Ma,” Bat says. In the kitchen he pulls a six-pack from the fridge.
He cracks one open, wolfs it down. Around him Bat can hear the incessant creaking of the house fixtures, like a field of ice coming apart in increments. A draft runs from several accesses and converges in the kitchen, frigidly whistling by Bat’s ear. He hears the fretful scrawlings of rats behind the walls, under the pipes. . . .
“How was the town?” the old dear asks.
“Fine,” Bat groans.
“I bet it was. Who’d you see?”
“Luke Minion. Couple of work folk. Hegardy, the Moonan girl. Saw Peter Donnelly’s youngest, Danny Duffy.”
“Sounds like they were all out, so.”
When Bat does not answer, she says, “Was it all right?”
“I survived,” Bat says.
The pksssh of a can’s tab getting popped. The old dear shifts in her seat. She listens to her son’s effortful ascent, the lumbering clop of each step up the squeaking stairs and then the succession of fainter percussive pulses traveling the sitting-room ceiling as he moves from the landing into, and then across, his bedroom. She’s sure she can hear the shunt of the window, and then he is out and up onto the roof; though she must make this assumption on faith.
She has dreams of him falling, of Eamonn letting himself fall. She has dreams of his bike leaving the road, his body a red rent along the macadam of some bleak country lane and the massive, settling silence afterward. This is what a mother must do: preemptively conjure the worst-case scenarios in order to avert them. She never considered or foresaw that little shit Nubbin Tansey and his boot, and he happened. She cannot make that mistake again.
There is a part of her that hates her son, the enormous, fatiguing fragility of him.
She watches the TV and listens, without intentionally listening, for the creak and thud of his return through the window. On the TV her favorite host and his guests. Entire passages of conversation slip by. She falls asleep and jolts abruptly to, not knowing she’s been asleep.
The TV screen is extinguished, a minute blue dot levitating in its dark center. The draft whistles, far above her, through the black; there is no noise, and it is dark everywhere. For a long moment she does not know who she is, or where she is. When it comes back to her, she calls out for her son.
Colin Barrett’s first collection of stories, Young Skins, is published in Ireland by the Stinging Fly Press and will be published in the US by Grove Atlantic in 2014.
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