Irish Exit: More specifically, the Irish Exit refers to the departure from any event without telling any friends, associates or acquaintances that one is leaving. It is almost always the result of being very inebriated/intoxicated.
– Urban Dictionary
The winter my brother died, I took up with a hardscrabble group of swindlers inside Liberty Pointe, a 40-year-old townhouse complex near the army post. During those gray months, we cold called households around the country, persuading people to buy sick children tickets for an upcoming Shriners’ Circus in their community. Imagine the smiles on those small, baldheads, we said, when the elephants stomped into the ring. I didn’t know much about the Shriners, except that they wore red fez hats, but over the phone, I pretended to be a member in good standing. People sometimes caught on that we were crooks, as if they could see inside our shabby townhouse with the 70s-era shag carpeting, but others blessed us for our good work. On those occasions, even though I had their credit card numbers, I felt like maybe I was finally doing something good with my life.
Back then, in 2007, the wars were heating up in both Iraq and Afghanistan, so people were desperate to impart some form of kindness into the world. It’s all about ego, my brother, Sid, used to say. Make someone feel proud of himself, and you can take the bank.
Had he lived, especially without those tumors mangling his brain, we’d have all been millionaires. As a boy, with his freckles and his hair combed and parted, Sid looked like the personification of youthful decency. Our grandmother’s bridge group always complimented his manners, the way he bowed and said yes ma’am and no sir. They had no idea he’d made almost a thousand dollars that year selling off our father’s boxed up pornography collection to their grandchildren. I almost ruined his business when I got into a fight with Tommy Brown after school one day. We were by the soccer fields, where Tommy grabbed a Penthouse and dared my brother to get it back. I was two years younger than Sid and our clients, which should have stopped me from tackling Tommy. But I ended up sitting on the fat boy’s chest, punching his face and neck with both fists. He squirmed away to the smoldering pile of leaves the janitor had been burning, and I took a handful of hot ashes and shoved them into Tommy’s crying mouth. An hour later, I sat in a chair outside the principal’s office, while Sid told our grandmother how Tommy teased us for being orphans. She looked into his cherubic face, the pain of her daughter and son-in-law’s automobile deaths reappearing in the folds on her forehead, and told us not to worry. Everything would be fine.
“I wish you had killed that fucker,” Sid told me that night as he iced on my swollen knuckles. “But you can’t lose it like that, Dean-o. You were out of control.”
When I didn’t respond, he set the ice pack down, pinched my pinkie between his fingers, kissed it, and then pulled it back until the bone broke. I don’t know why I didn’t pull my hand away. Later, as he wrapped the broken finger with electric tape, I tried not to cry. “This is a reminder,” he said, winding the tape around my pinkie and ring fingers, “to keep your head when you get pissed.”
In January of 2007, I started going to lunch with Meredith, a sort of office manager to our call center scam. She was the one who compiled the phone lists — the numbers usually belonging to retirees or people with slow, heavy voices — and she typed out scripts for the less motivated of our sales crew to follow. I asked her once, while she forked lettuce out of her Caesar salad, if she ever felt bad about our little ploy. I’m a cancer, she’d said after a pause. We feel guilty about everything.
Inside the townhouse, as if it were a real job, she always dressed professionally, in shiny rayon suits with an American flag pin on the lapel. Her husband, Duvall, had returned a few months earlier from Afghanistan. He’d been a small-town high school football star, she said, who turned down scholarship offers from several big universities in order to serve his country. When he returned from his last deployment, the hero quarterback glow had faded, and he spent the ensuing months wetting the bed he shared with Meredith.
“Are you feeling ok?” she asked one Monday, after taking a drink of her sweet tea. “Someone give you a hard time on the phone again?”
I brushed crumbs off our Formica table. “They didn’t wipe this down before they sat us,” I said. Then, going back to her question, I told her how I’d found one of Sid’s journals. It was just a Mead spiral notebook, and in the first twenty or so pages, he described how once he beat the tumors, he’d use his suffering to make some real cash.
Meredith grinned, not realizing there was spinach in her teeth. “You should bring that notebook to the call center. Might inspire some of those turds.”
I told her, sure, maybe, but I’d already tossed the journals into the trash. That’s because in the later pages, his neat, cursive handwriting became jagged, with wide loops and angry punctuation marks that tore through the paper. On the last few sheets, he’d abandoned words all together, opting to draw big-breasted women with swastikas covering their nude bodies. I had no idea what his ruined mind was trying to express.
After lunch, if we had time, Meredith and I would drive a few miles out of town to the abandoned Baggett Brothers Warehouse. It was a tall, three-story building with empty windows and a collapsed roof. A century ago, it’d been famous as the world’s largest tobacco warehouse, but now a chain link fence kept the homeless from camping in its condemned shadows.
We’d park in the back, where the burned husk of a doublewide trailer hid us from the road, and make love while watching for cops or peeping toms. Her foreign smelling perfume, spicier than I liked, reminded me that Meredith and I were really strangers. Whenever I inhaled her scent, I’d press my forehead to that valley between her breasts and ask myself what I was doing there. Sometimes, on overcast afternoons that had us both feeling blue, she’d ask me to say, in an official voice, “I regret to inform you ma’am that your husband was killed in action.”
That always caused her to sob Duvall’s name and then demand a kiss. I hated obeying, but I’d end up pressing my mouth so hard to hers that our teeth clicked together. When we finished, neither of us spoke, too embarrassed, I suppose, at how warped our love had become.
If we didn’t go to the abandoned tobacco warehouse after lunch, I’d head to the strip mall across the street for a quick drink at Patrick’s. Meredith rarely joined me; she complained that the bar repelled healthy, happy people. The filthy linoleum floor, yellow and spotted where it should have been white, looked as if it belonged in some shut-in’s kitchen, and the narrow room’s florescent bulbs, brighter than most joints I knew, gave the impression that everyone was in serious need of some Vitamin D. In the eighties, when someone named Patrick actually owned the place, it was meant to be an Irish pub. A faded Celtic cross, now buried behind a humming Yuengling sign, was painted on the interior brick wall, above the taps, and a framed placard, fogged with dust, contained the old Irish blessing, “May you be half an hour in Heaven before the Devil knows you’re dead.” My brother, Sid, tried his hardest to outrun the Devil. When the tumors came back, he took a dog-eared copy of the Bible with him to the courthouse lawn, where he sang old hymns from our Grandmother’s church. Most people, hearing him stutter through “To God be the Glory,” thought he was drunk, not realizing that a gang of deviant cells was squeezing these songs from the recesses of his brain.
No other decorations brightened the walls inside Patrick’s. The new owner, a six-fingered former bodybuilder named Osvaldo, didn’t care much for atmosphere. One afternoon, I sat by myself at the end of the bar, enjoying a PBR and a bourbon while Osvaldo leaned against the brick wall, using the one remaining finger on his left hand to flip the pages of “Being and Time.” The rumor was he’d lost the other four fingers to pay off a gambling debt, but once, when we were both drunk, he confessed he’d tried to keep a former love from riding off by grabbing the moving chain on his bicycle. On this particular afternoon, Osvaldo paused to think about the passage he’d just read, and our eyes met. I lifted my drink to him. “How are things?”
He looked at his book. Patrick’s wasn’t the type of place for socializing. “Dreamy. Miguel’s off his meds again.”
His partner Miguel lived with him in the cramped apartment upstairs. Back in 1989, Miguel had been on United Airlines Flight 811 when a hole opened in the fuselage and sucked out eight passengers, sending them plummeting to their deaths. After a few years of cheap therapy, Miguel eventually isolated himself in their apartment, where he became fixated on doomsday scenarios, like nuclear holocausts and super viruses. His newest fear, Osvaldo told me, was that an asteroid would wipe out life on the planet, like the one that killed off the dinosaurs.
“He’s hunkered down in his room, peeking through the blinds. When he gets like this, I don’t even know who he is.”
Osvaldo called it an Irish exit, meaning the rational, sane Miguel would quietly slip out of his body without telling anyone. I didn’t say a word. We sat drinking together for a while. My gaze rested on that Irish blessing, and I thought how nice a quick apocalypse would have been for my brother.
“Jesus has big plans for me,” Sid had told me. His swollen face in those last few months looked like some grotesque papier-mâché mask.
“Are you conning me?” I’d asked.
“We’re sinners, Dean.” His voice was heavy, the words distorted by his new lisp—war thinners, Dain. Then he closed his eyes, while some deep, unseen pain twisted inside of him.
“You want to hear something terrible?” Osvaldo asked. He set his book on the bar. “I wish an asteroid or part of that international space station would come crashing down right on top of him. Just flatten the fucker. At least it’d justify all his worrying.”
“That’s not terrible.” I stood to leave. “Isn’t that what we all want? To have the ones we love crushed by space debris.”
The next day, I made dozens of calls to Charlotte, North Carolina, trying to convince elderly women to send sick children to the circus, but the entire city was in an uncharitable mood. One woman demanded to know whom I was with, and when I said the local Shriners, the old lady called me a liar.
“My husband’s a Shriner.” She laughed wickedly. “Roger Lewis.”
“Jesus, you mean the pedophile? Tell him we’re serious. If he can’t keep his hands off the kiddies, he can’t come back.”
“What’s your name?” she said after a pause.
At lunchtime, I went with Meredith to her apartment at Freedom Park so she could let the dog out. Duvall was on post, she assured me, but I still felt like a thief in their small living room, with its blank walls and plain, khaki colored furniture. The dog, a pit-bull mix named Houdini, whined in his crate in the bedroom.
“Say hi to Mr. Dean.” Meredith opened the crate, and he scampered toward me, squirming at my feet as if no amount of affection could soothe him. I kept my hands in my pockets.
“Just pet him,” Meredith said.
It didn’t feel right, after all she and I had done, to also steal love from Duvall’s dog. “I’m not good with animals.”
She put a leash on him. “You’re not so hot with people, either.” Meredith took the dog outside, letting the door slam shut behind her. In the quiet that followed, I remembered Duchess, my grandparents’ old Fox Hound. That pretentious canine, with her smooth brown and white coat and noble gait, always seemed better than us. It embarrassed me to be around her, as if this juxtaposition was more than I could bear, but Sid slept with the dog in his bed, and each morning at five a.m., he walked her through the wet fields surrounding our grandparents’ house. At mom and dad’s funeral, my brother had smiled politely at all the aunts and uncles and family friends, thanking them for coming. When the mail truck hit Duchess, staining the old country road with her blood for weeks, he bawled like infant. That was the only time I ever saw him cry, and our grandfather, unaccustomed to such blubbering, smacked Sid hard across the face and said, “You whine more over a goddamned animal than for a human being.”
To distract myself from similar memories, I moved around the empty apartment, looking for signs of Duvall. Opening closets and rifling through shoeboxes, I found football trophies, a letterman jacket, and wadded up, soiled bed sheets. In the bedroom, I peeked inside a nightstand drawer. There, on top of Duvall’s neatly folded underwear, I discovered what looked like a severed penis. A second or two passed before I realized it was only a flesh colored dildo, but for a moment I wondered if Duvall knew the organ had taken leave of him.
“We call it his doppelganger,” Meredith said.
She stood behind me in the doorway. Houdini pawed at my leg as if he wanted to play fetch. Before the last deployment to Afghanistan, Meredith said, a few of the wives in the Unit’s Family Readiness Group purchased make-your-own-dildo kits to keep a piece of their husbands stateside.
“This is modeled on him?” I nudged the rubbery organ, as if I were poking a dead animal. “It’s kind of small.”
“You think so?” Her smile made me self-conscious.
Meredith pinched the doppelganger, like a cigar, and told me about the night they made it, the night she actually felt like a real wife. She’d worn an apron, as if she were the mom on Leave it to Beaver, and whisked together the kit’s ingredients in a metal bowl. Duvall stood next to her with his pants down, working up his excitement; they only had two minutes until the batter hardened.
“He had to stick it into a tube we’d made with this mixture. It was a mess.” She laughed. “The first mold came out lopsided, so we had to do it again.”
After successfully making an impression of his penis, they poured in the skin-colored latex and inserted the small, AA-battery powered stem that would make it come alive.
“I never used it.” She rubbed my lower back. Her voice turned into a whisper.
“Maybe it would have saved your marriage,” I said.
Meredith kissed my ear. “There’s nothing wrong with my marriage.” Her fingernails dug into my back, scratching me but without affection. “Dean, you don’t want me. Don’t you know that? It’s too much of a sin for me to inflict my type of love on other people.”
A week or two later, I got in the habit of staying home all day, watching soap operas and game shows. The Thursday Meredith called to check on me, I was absorbed in an episode of Wheel of Fortune.
“You’ve been drunk for a week solid,” she said over the phone.
“More than a week, I think.” I sat on Sid’s old mattress, which I’d pushed out into the living room, while contestants called out letters.
“You need to eat something. You look like shit.”
“I am eating.” An hour earlier, I’d walked to the convenience store across from my apartment to pick up a six-pack of PBR. In the sweets aisle, I’d grabbed a jumbo sack of Reese’s Pieces. After our grandmother took us to E.T. one summer, Sid and I would walk barefoot into the Food Town and tuck the orange bags of candy into the elastic bands of our shorts. Now, I ate them slowly, one piece at a time, while trying to solve the puzzle on the television.
“You’re coming to dinner tomorrow, if I have to drive over there and get you.”
“And he’s going to be there?” I threw a piece of candy at the television when a contestant solved the puzzle, “Laundry Day of Reckoning,” with only six letters. The hard-shell treat bounced off the screen and then rolled across the hardwood floor. “You trying to make him jealous?”
“No, the opposite,” she said after a pause. “I just want you to eat. Tomorrow at seven. We’re ordering pizza. Nothing fancy.”
“I’m trying to be a good person here.”
“You’re a Gemini,” she said right before hanging up. “The twins, remember? You can never just be good.”
My pinkie, the one Sid broke years ago, started to throb, as if warning me to keep my head and stay away from their bastardized domesticity. But as I rubbed tiny circles across the soothsaying knuckle, I understood that something within me — curiosity, maybe, or some darker urge — would have me grinning at the two of them that Friday.
The next night, I pulled up to the townhouse and sat watching their shadows move across the lighted windows. A half empty Pabst rested between my legs. I took a sip, wondering why I’d come. A new Ford F-150 shined under the parking lot’s light; Duvall’s gift to himself for surviving the war. We lived in an odd little town littered with yellow ribbons and pawn shops, where the rundown streets had names like Independence Way and Valor Pike, and while admiring his truck, it occurred to me that Bethlehem’s patriotic fervor was really meant to hide the fact that we were all war profiteers, benefiting either from the absence of handsome young men or from the flush wallets of combat pay they brought home.
When I finally turned the car off and pocketed my key, there was a knock at my window. Duvall stood just beyond the glass, looking giddy as he grinned at me.
“I saw you pull up,” he said. “Just thought I’d see if you wanted to come inside.”
He looked like a child, with his smooth cheeks and the cowlick in the back of his close-cropped hair, but his shoulders were broad, and his body tightly wrapped in muscles that made him, when his face was obscured, appear more like a weapon than a man.
“I was just finishing my beer,” I said, stepping out of my car. We shook hands, and his grip was firm, but not intimidating.
“Meredith told me not to give you anything to drink,” he whispered. “But we have some beer in the fridge.”
In the living room, we sat together on the couch while Houdini paced anxiously back and forth. The dog looked like she had something to say—a look I didn’t trust—but Duvall only saw her as an obstacle to the basketball game he was watching. When Houdini finally climbed onto the couch and sat between us, Duvall seemed content to drink quietly from his Budweiser, but I felt a strange desire to distract him from the dog’s silent accusations. Unsure of what to say to the man I was cuckolding, I awkwardly rehashed a radio story I’d heard about colonizing Mars.
“There’s a company looking for volunteers to go live there,” I said. “The catch is, it’s a one-way ticket. There’s no coming back.”
Duvall laughed without looking away from the game. He seemed different now, his giddiness giving way to boredom. “You think you could do that? Never see your loved ones again?”
“You bet.” I took a long drink from my beer. “I wonder if they’d let me take my brother.”
“Didn’t he die?” Duvall looked at me. “Meredith said that’s why you’re so depressed.”
Why did that sting so bad? For a moment, while staring at his All-American profile, I almost said at least I didn’t piss my bed at night, but then Meredith showed up. She stood in the hall doorway, wearing a sleeveless top that showed off her muscular arms. “Hey there, stranger,” she half yelled, and the strain in her voice reminded me that, yes, we were strangers. “Let me show you around.”
We left Duvall on the couch while she pointed out parts of the apartment I already knew. When we reached the guest room, she turned, put both her hands on my face, and kissed me hard against the lips. There was a tenderness to her warm touch that had never been there before, and when she pulled away, her eyes were wet.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
She shook her head no. Then she rubbed her hand against my whiskered cheek. “Everything’s fine. What about you, baby?”
“I got to take a leak,” I said.
In the bathroom, I looked at my weathered face in the mirror and understood for the first time why I was there. Meredith wanted to show Duvall, her jealous, bed-wetting war hero, that I was too disheveled for her to love. And he’d seen this, out in the parking lot, when his relief at my wrinkled clothes and scraggily, graying beard had made him overly friendly. My visit that night was a way for her to say goodbye. That’s what the kiss had been about. All this curdled within me as I poured the rest of my beer in the toilet, mimicking the sound of urinating, and when I flushed, I felt the remnants of my reasonable, decent self finally swirl down the drain.
That night, as I drove away from the Freedom Park apartments, my mind kept turning back to Sid and that last moment of clarity he experienced before he died, when his thin, surprisingly strong fingers clenched my wrist, and he whispered, “I don’t want to go, Dean.”
To distract myself as I moved through the town with its noble names, I pictured Duvall and Meredith clinging to each other in the joyful realization that I was gone. The two of them, I hoped, made their way into the bedroom and opened the nightstand drawer so they could use Duvall’s doppelganger to fill as many orifices as possible with their renewed love. But the dildo wouldn’t be there. In its place, they’d find the note I hastily wrote, thanking Duvall for his service and use of his wife.
I’m a Cancer, Meredith had said, and I reminded myself of this as I parked at the cemetery’s wrought iron gate. In the passenger seat, a war hero’s fake cock kept me company. For a long minute, I thought of burying this piece of Duvall next to my brother, giving Sid one last laugh, wherever he was, or buying it a little fez hat and leaving it at the call center. But instead, I just sat there, holding the dildo to my chest, and waited for an asteroid or a piece of Skylab to come take me away before anyone had a chance to notice.
Charles Booth won the 2017 Alligator Juniper National Fiction Contest, and he earned second place in the 2014 Playboy College Fiction Contest. He received his MFA from Murray State University, and his fiction has appeared in Alligator Juniper, The Greensboro Review, The Southampton Review, The Pinch, The Roanoke Review, The Heartland Review, Booth, and SLAB. He lives in Clarksville, Tennessee, with his wife, Danica, and their son, Reynolds.