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Irish Girl

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Inside Tim Johnston's Irish Girl, readers will find spellbinding stories of loss, absence, and the devastating effects of chance--of what happens when the unthinkable bad luck of other people, of other towns, becomes our bad luck, our town. Taut, lucid, and engrossing, provocative and dark--and often darkly funny--these stories have much to offer the lover of literary fiction as well as the reader who just loves a great story. "This is white-knuckle prose; it means what it says and it says what it means. Not that I count words, but when an image can be etched in fewer than ten, I sit up and take notice. When an image is limned in fewer than five words, I pretty near shiver. The stories in Irish Girl provide more shiver per page than most stories provide in twenty."—Janet Peery, judge and author of The River Beyond the World

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Acknowlegments

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Dirt Men

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Dirt Men

It’s old Jimmy Day who finds it, digging away on a tract of greasy earth that two days ago was an auto salvage lot. (Where those dripping wrecks ended up we don’t ask: our focus has been on leveling the land so that pavement can get in there and lid the whole toxic stretch with two feet of concrete, pronto.) I was about twenty yards away on my skidloader, pushing around a green goulash of mud and batteries and hubcaps, looking right at

Jimmy when he did something you almost never see Jimmy do: he stopped digging. His bucket came up, but instead of swinging over to the dump truck it halted, and hung there, bobbing, then folded up on itself like a stork leg so Jimmy could get a better look at what was inside, and—Holy Jesus: An arm. A human arm, jutting from the teeth. The arm so stark, and clean, and well-formed, it was impossible to think it was real.

Jimmy climbs down and walks his jerky, haywire walk over to it, and I join him there. The hand at the end of the arm is open, the fingers splayed, like, Whoa, stay back.

 

Water

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Water

She was a good sleeper, a dependable sleeper, but that night

Charlotte woke up with her heart whumping, like a young mother.

There had been something.

She lay in the dark, not breathing. At one window the drapes were shaped by faint light from the street, but at the other there was nothing, no light from the neighbors, no moonlight, and the effect was briefly frightening, as if the wall had fallen away into space, or a black sea.

She drew the alarm clock into focus: 1:36. She had a son who would stay out late, but when he came home he was like a cat, and if she heard him at all it was because she had gotten up to use the washroom, pausing by his door just long enough to hear him clicking at the computer in there, or humming to the iPod, or shhshing Ginny Simms, his girl.

She heard none of this now, nothing at all but the heat pumping invisibly, bloodlike, in the walls of the house. This was late

October, two nights before Halloween, the first truly cold night of the season.

She closed her eyes and the dream she’d been having eddied back to center—a dream of hands, the feel of them, the smell of them; muscle and tendon, palm and finger. Her body, under the bedding, still hummed. She breathed, she slowed, she drifted down.

 

Things Go Missing

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Things Go Missing

Part I: Malfeasance

For a while, there, I was a burglar. I mean I walked uninvited

into people’s homes and took their things and kept them for myself—though usually not for very long. My locker would fill up and girls would notice, the way girls do, and if they saw something they liked I’d either give it to them or take some cash just for appearances—two bucks for a near-empty bottle of N°5, five for something really desirable like a red alligator clutch. If anybody asked, it was all stuff my mother was getting rid of. When business got too brisk, or I began to recognize too many things in the halls, I’d start ditching my haul before I got back to school, or else I’d take it home and stash it in my mother’s boxes in the attic, knowing that Dad, if he ever went up there, would not be able to tell the difference.

Say “burglar” and people think: Male, full-grown, night-time, black clothes, flashlight. They don’t think: Girl, ponytail, pancake chest, Gap jeans—ringing the bell in the middle of the day, asking, Is Betty-Lynn home—? No kid was ever named Betty-Lynn.

 

Antlerless Hunt

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Antlerless Hunt

The young man had a truck in the air on a rotation job and he was in such a deep, thoughtless rhythm, nothing in his mind but the pneumatic burst of the driver, the clang of a lug in the pan, another scream of the gun, that it took a shout from the next bay over, half-deaf Haskins with that slug of plastic in his ear, to break him out of it. Haskins aiming an oily finger roofward, where the girl’s voice was sounding again—the familiar amplified voice that was like a great girl-throated bird you never saw but which sang all day from the steel rafters, naming one man or another to come to the front desk, come sign something, come see her. Always some other man and never the young man, not in the six months he’d been at the shop, so that when he paused, and listened, and heard the girl say his name, all the blood seemed to pour from him like oil.

He drew a red rag from his pocket and walked head-down along the narrow aisle of other men’s gazes, fixedly wiping at his fingers. His name was Tucker Russell. Ordinary-looking, of average height and weight, he was the youngest man at the shop, and certainly the oddest. Attempts to draw him out, to see what made him tick, to see what got his goat, had come to nothing.

 

Jumping Man

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Jumping Man

A child goes missing one afternoon, somebody’s little girl, and the news is a stick, an accurate rock, to the quiet hive of Sunday.

Mowers are killed mid-lawn, propane grills are snuffed, wet limbs are plucked from pools and sorted and banished from water, from fun itself, until further notice. Adults and teenagers fan out, lacing the air with the missing girl’s name like the call-and-answer of a whole new game: jay-nee . . . jay-nee . . . jay-nee!

We all have cell phones, we all know the number to call when we find her, we all secretly believe we will be the one to make the call—to tell her mother that Janie is fine, not kidnapped or molested, simply lost on her bike in the vast clone job of lawns and houses. And who hasn’t been? Pulling our cars into the wrong drive, wondering whose big dog is chained to our tree, where the rose bushes came from. It’s our inside joke—What a beautiful house!—and when somebody else’s kid walks big-eyed through the front door we are kind, we are patient, we don’t send her out again until we know where she belongs.

 

Lucky Gorseman

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Lucky Gorseman

A river divides the campus now as ever, not equally, but so utterly that a citylike distinction can’t be helped: East Side,

West Side. The East Side is philosophy and English and art and music and no decent places to drink. This is my side. I live here in an 8-plex with a Russian poet I met the day I moved in and haven’t seen since. He’s got an American girlfriend on the West

Side, the Russian poet does, so I don’t take it personally. In fact everything good is over there: pizza, beer, dancing, undergrads, all the hard sciences. The West Side, some say, is the Best Side.

But those who say it lack perspective, I think—or information.

Certainly memory: few of them were here sixteen years ago; many were barely walking. Safe to say I’m the only one who was eleven and had a father who was on a hit-list but who, by the sheerest, dumbest luck imaginable, lived.

R

Dad had been big in Canada for his work with comets, but what the Americans loved about him was his software. This was back in the day, when a computer was something. He taught himself code and wrote a program that, properly installed, would predict the trajectories of all the known large-body objects, or LBOs, of the solar system for the next 5,000 years, including (this was the juicy part) any potential Earth collisions. His impact scenarios were

 

Up There

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Up There

“Wake up, princess,” she whispered, and her face surfaced white, spectral, from out of the dark, eyes dark and glittering.

He looked away, beyond her, into the strangeness of the room: the outline of a little desk, the black gleam of a TV. His blood was pumping hard from a dream. When he spoke, his troubled face seemed to be saying, Where am I? What is this place? but what he said was: “Timezit?”

The air was very dry. His tongue was a lizard in the dry socket of his mouth. Above him, the smile broke slowly, sweetly, in the white face as it retreated, as it withdrew into darkness again and the darkness healed over it like water.

“Time to run,” said her voice.

R

Outside, the sun was still climbing the far side of the mountains, and the valley waited in cold blue shadow. Clouds shredding pink in the toothy peaks, the moon still luminous in the west. No one was around, no one to see the two of them passing under a blinking yellow traffic light going d-dink, d-dink, d-dink just for them. They drew the air in and coughed up white clouds. The smell of pine was like Christmas. The girl was not yet running but high-stepping in a soundless pantomime of it, like a horse, or a drum majorette for a parade that consisted of the boy alone,

 

Irish Girl

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Irish Girl

The way it began, the way he’d remember it many years later, was a kick to the leg.

He was under the kitchen table playing with army men and somebody kicked him. Not too hard but not too soft, either.

William.

He turned and scowled at corduroys and tube socks, all he could see of his brother. “What?”

“They’re waiting for you,” William said in an odd voice. “In their bedroom.”

And then he walked away.

R

Before that, of course, were things Charlie didn’t know much about, being eight. He didn’t know about Nixon’s decision to send troops into Cambodia, or how that led to the shootings at Kent

State, or how that led, in turn, to the smashed shop windows in his own home town. He did know a little about the thirteen boys from the agricultural college arrested for rioting, because his father had been their lawyer. But he didn’t know how the trial, which had made the news every night for two weeks, spreading his father’s name across the state like goldenrod, had given his father the idea to run for office. He didn’t know what the Iowa

 

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