Winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, 2009 Inside Tim Johnston's Irish Girl (winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction) 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.
|Publisher:||University of North Texas Press|
|Series:||Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction Series|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
TIM JOHNSTON was born in Iowa City, Iowa. When his first novel, Never So Green, was published, he was working as a carpenter in Hollywood, California. His fiction has been included in the O. Henry Prize Stories and David Sedaris’ anthology of favorites, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Awarded a MacDowell Fellowship in 2008, Tim is currently back in Iowa City, writing a new novel.
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By tim johnston
University of North Texas PressCopyright © 2009 Tim Johnston
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDirt 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.
"Son of a bitch, Jimmy," Garth Koepke calls, grunting down from his dump truck, "what'd you do?"
"I ain't done nothin'," Jimmy says with a body-twitch. "I been just diggin'."
"Mother. Of. Christ," says Don Sherman around a wad of chaw, joining us. "Jesus, Rain Man." Ten years ago Don Sherman and I made it through four years of high school without word one to each other, and now he's foreman of me and all these old boys twice our age. He calls Jimmy Rain Man because of Jimmy's way with a backhoe, a machine that is like a twelve-ton drum kit, all pedals and levers, but he's the only one; Jimmy and his quirks are too old for a new nickname, especially one coined by Don Sherman.
More dirt men come round for a look. Up close we can see the grime in the creases of the palm and under the nails, which are long like a woman's and painted some dark shade. The air is a bad mix of diesel and river and spoilage, and the bluebottles have come. Seeing just the arm, and a jut of scapula, and a sprig of dirty hair, we all have the same queasy thought, but no one moves: the last gouge marks from Jimmy's bucket-the deep, vertical grooves from the teeth-hold us back.
"Jimmy," Don Sherman says at last. "Go on and see if you-you know. Got the whole deal."
Jimmy's right arm shoots spasmodically out, up, then down on top of his Cubs cap. "Well, Don. I don't ... I don't-"
"Relax, Jimmy," Garth Koepke says with a hard glance at Don Sherman. "I'll go." He makes his way to the edge of the hole and, lowering to one knee, strikes a kind of pose, as if he is all at once a man burdened by deep thoughts.
"Well?" says Don Sherman.
Garth keeps looking, unmoving, pondering-until at last he stands and comes slowly back.
"Came out clean," he says, and everyone breathes again. Except the girl, inside Jimmy's bucket. All of her in there, tucked into the same shape, the same egg of earth, in which she'd been buried-just the arm extending, the hand open, trying to reach something, someone. No one speaks, and in the silence a few words, a sentence fragment, passes before my eyes like a banner behind a ghost plane:
far off as a star and just as small
I recognize it. I know its author. My student. My brilliant, tiny accuser.
* * *
If Garth Koepke or Jimmy Day or any of the dirt men are Veterans of Foreign Wars, they have never made a point of it in my presence. Never hiked up sleeves to show tattoos or bullet holes. Never talked of the Nam, or Baghdad. But they are veterans of filing into the VFW Lounge on a hot July afternoon, sauntering in and forming such quick, unspoken subsets that right away I know I'm sitting with Jimmy Day: he may be Mozart on the backhoe but on the ground he's still a spaz, and I may be the only son of Buddy Knudson, one-time co-owner of Schotz & Knudson Excavating Co., but I am still that kid, that moody little jag-off they remember from ten years ago-Buddy Jr.
Junior, to the dirt men, then and now.
What compels Garth Koepke to join me and Jimmy is anybody's guess, maybe nothing more than the same stripe of antagonism that used to inspire in me such daydreams as I drove my little skidloader through the dirty summers: yonder came fat Garth, all aflame from his burning rig; here was his fat outline in the dirt, pancaked by a roller; there went his head, sailing like a teed-up golfball with one swing of Jimmy's bucket ...
He takes a chair across from me with his fat man's huff, though he is easily half the size he used to be-hardly recognizable as the man I once hated so purely. And then he speaks:
"I don't know if you know this about Jimmy, Junior, but them retard legs a his is both hollow. He can drink you, me, and the Queen a England under this table."
I glance at Jimmy, to read his reaction, but he wears that Cubs cap like a roof and won't look up. "I do enjoy the beer," he says from under there.
Garth gazes dully at me, then past me, and squints, and says: "Goddam, Eddie, turn that up," and all the dirt men turn to look. It's the Biopark, up on an old Zenith behind the bar-an aerial view that momentarily telescopes toward earth, then snaps up again like a bungee jumper. The target is the stilled yellow hulk of Jimmy's backhoe, the bucket wrapped in blue tarp. Cops and other miniatures mill around doing important work. The bartender, Eddie, abandons the prying of bottlecaps to reach and jiggle a knob-an actual knob-until a female voice squawks out, "THAT'S RIGHT, JOHN AND LISA, THE LOCATION DOESN'T APPEAR TO BE THE BIOPARK ITSELF BUT SOMEWHAT, UM, SOUTH OF THAT. POSSIBLY THE SITE OF A HOTEL, OR A RESTAURANT ..."
"It's a parking lot, sweetheart," says one of the dirt men.
They watch the coverage glumly, the dirt men, wondering if they'll have jobs come Monday. And maybe they won't. The Biopark Project, a head-scratcher from the beginning-twenty acres of simulated rainforest, indoors, in Iowa-has been taking a beating in the press, and nobody knows when the plug might get pulled, or what little thing might pull it.
We watch, and the old bartender with his eye patch makes the rounds, setting down beers with a repetitive thunk that sends each man into the same silent, automated motion of lifting, swigging, and setting the bottle down again, one after the other like men of some order, or church. Two months ago I was living in Colorado, riding my mountain bike, teaching my students, writing my book. I can tell myself these things but I can't quite believe them; all of that was a dream. Or else this is. I take my swig.
A lighter flares and I turn to see Garth lighting up. Others are smoking, there's the tack of nicotine everywhere. He jabs the pack at me and I decline.
"Been a while since I saw anybody light up indoors," I say, and he bares a dog's mouth of yellow teeth. "There is something wrong," he says, "something is off at the heart of things when a man can't light up where he pleases. Might as well tell him he can't say what he thinks, nor pledge allegiance, hey? Nor own a goddam pea-shooter except in the designated goddam areas." He glares at me like I have had something to do with these things. Like I've been away these ten years enacting legislation.
"I don't mind it," I say. "It reminds me of Buddy Senior."
"Buddy was a good man," Jimmy says.
Garth grunts and looks away.
"But he got the cancer anyway, didn't he, Junior Buddy."
"Christ, Jimmy," Garth says.
"Yes he did," I say. "He got it anyway."
Garth turns his squint on me again, through a cobra of smoke.
"He went fast, hey Junior?"
Throughout the bar are photographs of soldiers: entire companies lined up like high school football squads. Smaller units arm-in-arm in front of tanks and helicopters. If the men are not trying to look like killers they are grinning like boys, but the effect from frame to frame is the same: We died like this, young and far from home, in a manner you can't imagine.
"About a week, altogether," I say. "I had to finish some things at school ... final exams. I was on the plane when he passed." Garth knows this already-everybody knows it-yet I can't help explaining. As if Buddy Sr. himself were listening.
I take a swig with my eyes on the ceiling fan. Four sooty blades generating just enough turbulence to keep the flystrips corkscrewing.
"Well," Garth says, looking away. "Least you tried."
* * *
Eddie jiggles the knob again in time for us to hear a reporter ask the Police Chief if there's any connection between the Biopark body and a middle-school science teacher who went missing two weeks ago. The Police Chief pats his moustache like it's a glue-on and says they are certainly looking into that possibility. Says, "It's unfortunate all those cars got hauled away. There might've been some evidence in there. At the same time, this person's remains might never have been recovered otherwise ... so it's kind of a paradox for us."
"That's a strange word," I say. "Recovered. Shouldn't it be uncovered?"
Garth pokes a pinky into his mouth to dig something from his teeth. "You're pissed, Junior."
"Junior Buddy enjoys the beer," Jimmy says. He raises his bottle in a strangely steady salute.
"Naw," I say.
"It's all right," Garth says.
Fuck you, old man.
Newscopter Nine is filming the portage of a large white bag across the dig site. It takes a surprising number of people to carry the bag-she had seemed so small in that bucket. But then so had Buddy Sr., when I finally saw his body, and yet it took six men to bear his casket.
"How you reckon she got in that junk yard?" Garth says.
"The usual way," I say. "Except ... you'd expect her to be in one of those cars, like in the trunk. Not in the ground."
"Only a dumbass would leave a body in a trunk," Garth says.
"But why the junk yard? With the Biopark right there?"
He blows a cloud and says, "You're the professor. Maybe the guy figured he'd kill two birds with one stone: get some cash for his junker and get rid a the body. So he puts her in the trunk, hey? Gets the yard to come tow his junker, then walks in there later, finds the car, hauls her out and buries her. Only he don't figure on the Biopark. He don't figure a junk yard is ever gonna go nowhere."
The splotched skin of his brow bunches up, and he appears to snarl. "What?" he says.
"Nothing," I say, going for my beer.
"Nothing my ass."
"I ain't saying how that gal got there," Jimmy says. "But they gone rest her husband, dollars and donuts."
Slowly, with effort, Garth shifts his eyes from mine to Jimmy's. "Dollars to donuts, Jimmy. How many times I gotta say it?"
"They gone rest him, Garth. You watch."
"You psychic now, too?"
"Naw," says Jimmy. "That's what happened to my dad. Only he wasn't my real dad. He killed my mom and then they rested him and put him in the prison."
I stare at Jimmy. We both do. I can hear the ceiling fan, the slow, chopperlike whup whup of the blades. Garth lights a fresh Camel.
"We known each other about a hundred years, Jimmy, and you never said nothin' like this. You said you was a orphan."
"I was a orphan, Garth. That's how come."
"So how old was you when-you became a orphan."
"Six years eggzact."
"On your birthday, Jimmy?" I say.
"Yes sir. She made me angelfood cake, then he conked her on her head with his Stilson wrench. He wanted a conk me too but I run. I run better'n I walk, sometimes. Plus he was pissed and he fell over my bike. He said he's tire a living with retards. Lady next door called the police, and after that I gone to the orphnage."
"Jesus, Jimmy," says Garth. "Seems like you'da mentioned this before."
"I did. I tole Buddy when he give me my job. I figgerd he tole you."
"No, he never did."
"Huh," says Jimmy.
"Maybe he told Buddy Junior, though," Garth says.
"No," I say. There's a long silence. The whup whup whup of the blades. The eyes of the soldiers. "We didn't talk too much."
* * *
In the end, we are the last to leave. The other dirt men have places to go. Doublewides and girlfriends. Rugrats and Hungry Man dinners. (Do such lives make it easier to forget about a dead girl, or harder? Do any of them know more about her than they're saying? If I stand up, will I fall on my ass?)
"If Buddy could see you now, boy," Garth says, half-grinning.
"Your point?" I say.
"No point, Junior. I was just observing the whattayacallit. Irony."
My head bobs on my neck. "How the mighty have fallen?"
"Naw, son. I never said you was mighty."
"HA!" I say, and a true grin cracks his old face, and he laughs, but then the laugh becomes a series of ripping coughs he tries to catch in his fist. Jimmy waits for the fit to pass, then asks, "OK, Garth?" and Garth nods, red-faced, and tips back his bottle, and something in the folds of his eye catches the light, a speck of water. He wipes his lips with the back of his hand, and as the hand comes down his eyes seem to stumble onto me. Like he wasn't expecting to see me sitting there. "Boy," he says. "What the hell are you doin' here?"
"Here-?" I say, indicating the table, and the old man grunts, and grabs his Camels, and turns away, all his focus on the cigarette, the flame. When he exhales he watches the smoke, nothing else. After a moment I say, enunciating carefully: "I ran afoul of policy."
Jimmy turns to Garth. "What'd he say?"
"Says he got shit-canned."
"How come you got shit-canned, Junior Buddy?"
"Scomplicated," I say.
"He don't wanna talk about it, Jimmy. He's embarrassed."
"Nothing to be embarrassed about," I say. "Simple misunderstanding." And then, somehow, my mouth keeps going-someone else's tongue in there, bumping against my teeth, making sounds ... going on about this girl in Colorado, this student, this cowboy boot-wearing, brilliant little thing. A writer of such skill I could never show her essays to the rest of the class, it would have devastated them. It devastated me, her talent. And thrilled me. I wanted to teach her, to hone her, but in the end my job was only to guide her toward editors who scooped her up, who were amazed to learn she was just nineteen. The girl, in her youth, went about her days as before, checking her text messages, going to classes, twisting her hair around her finger while my heart beat, while it galloped, for the both of us.
Her final essay began as handsomely as the others, a prose song about helping her father breed horses in the Wind River Mountains. It forayed a while, just a tad sentimentally, through days of home-schooling (when she thought of school playgrounds she felt, she wrote, far off as a star and just as small), before bursting out at a dead sprint on the subject of God, and Faith, and the college's determination, by sheer curricular force, to ram the hypothesis of evolution down her throat.
The hypothesis, she wrote, several times, with the italics, until at last I scrawled in the margin, "Celeste! Why don't you explore this word instead of all this italicizing?"
Then, later: "Are you serious, Celeste?"
Understand-prior to this she'd written gorgeously against oil rigs in Alaska. She'd called the V.P. a "grim little Bonaparte." It seemed some trick, a hoax, that this latest could have sprung from the breast of such a girl. I wanted to call up those editors and say Wait! Do no not publish those essays!
At the end of that final paper, in disbelief, in heartbreak, I wrote: "Let's meet and talk about this, OK?" I assigned no grade.
At class the next day when the hour was up Celeste didn't linger. She was first out the door, her boot heels scuffing smartly. She didn't show up for the next class, or the one after that. When I called, her roommate told me she was out. She was out and out and out.
Excerpted from irish girl by tim johnston Copyright © 2009 by Tim Johnston. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Things Go Missing....................33
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
You may read this book for the intriguing plot of each short story. Or you may read it for its cast of characters, each with a story, some of it told, most of it left to be constructed by the reader. I will re-read it for its beautiful language, that flows from one utterance to the other. The characters are ¿normal¿ people, with subtle evidence of dysfunctionality in their past that drives the present and hints at the future. The plot is fast paced. The language is exquisite. This collection of short stories is a treat! I will be awaiting Tim Johnston next collection!
Every single story in this book is excellently crafted and very, very good reading. I loved this book and am so happy that I stumbled upon it.