“Irish Girl” by Tim Johnston

Charlie is called into his parents room where he finds out he’s not adopted, but his older brother William is. Their mother and father separate, and the boys spend weekends with their father. Then William reaches 16 and starts rebelling, staying out late with other teens, smoking and driving too fast. Charlie just wants to be with his older brother, wants him to take him with him on these nights out, blood relation or not.

About the Author

Tim Johnston is the author of the New York Time’s Bestselling novel Descent, the story collection Irish Girl, and the YA novel Never So Green. The stories of Irish Girl won numerous prizes, including the O. Henry Prize, while the collection itself won the 2009 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. Tim currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.


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.’ It was his brother, William, and he told him they were waiting for him in their bedroom. There were things Charlie didn’t know about before that, being eight, such as Nixon sending troops into Cambodia. He did know about some boys getting arrested for rioting from the agricultural college, but he hadn’t known the trial had led his father to run for office. He hadn’t known what it was to win by a landslide, or that his father was still riding high when he called for him to Have the Talk before he left for the State Capitol. They’d just had the talk with William, too. His parents were sitting on their bed, wet eyed, explaining what adoption meant. He felt sick, knew what adoption was, looked at the floor waiting to be told he was adopted. His father asked if that would make him sad, but he just shrugged. His father told him he wasn’t adopted, but that didn’t mean they loved William any less, or that they were any less brothers. Charlie was just glad he wasn’t adopted.

Charlie sat down to dinner that night, pushing beans around his plate, feeling bad for feeling glad he wasn’t adopted. William is still in the room they share. Charlie thinks if he hears anyone making fun of the adopted kid at school, he’ll stick up for him this time. William appeared, and Charlie ran to him, locking him in a tight embrace. William pushes him off and says he’s hungry, and that’s that.

Their father bought a second car, a green Cougar convertible, and took the boys to see where he sat in the session chamber. They all spent the night in the trailer he rented near the interstate. Charlie asked William if he thought their father liked the place better than home. William asked ‘Wouldn’t you?’ Their father took them home next day and didn’t return for months. Mother said he was writing bills to be made into laws. William looked at her the way he looked at Charlie when he said something stupid. William had stopped cutting his hair, smelling of cigarettes and car engines, getting out of bed in the morning with a boner. Charlie felt puny in comparison, worried he’d never grow up like William. When their father finished his two year term, he returned home but took another trailer, taking the boys for pizza in his Cougar on Fridays, them staying over until Sunday afternoon. He would let William drive them home. When Charlie returned from school now, William had a group of boys over, drinking Coke and eating potato chips, calling him Billy. Charlie wondered if they’d been to school. Mum and William argued when she came home. One night, their mother slapped William and he called her a bitch, leaving the house. She was shocked. Charlie wants to tell her it’s because he’s adopted. No real son would say that. Charlie hears mother on the phone with their father and that Friday, William takes two pillow cases with his clothes in.

Charlie starts to miss William in the Spring, the stories he used to tell. Their father gave up trailer living and bought a house. Charlie’s surprised he has his own room. He hears the horn of a freight train before falling asleep. The next night, their father went out wearing Brut and a pair of jeans. William was left in charge. As soon as he leaves, William lit a Camel. He says their father is a fascist. Charlie wondered at the knowledge of a 16 year old who never goes to school. He told Charlie he’s going out for a while, Charlie asks to come but he refuses. He got into a Chevy Impala, the colour of an army tank, that beeped its horn outside. He kissed a girl with straight red hair. They drove off. Two hours later, their father called Charlie. In bed that night, Charlie heard his father thundering down the hallway to William’s room, shouting at him to get up. He told him not to leave Charlie alone again, they fought. He goads their father to hit him. The next day, there’s no sign of William. He doesn’t see him until the next Saturday, when William tells him to get his shoes, taking him out to the Chevy which is full of teenagers. The girl with the red hair is there. The girl is called Colleen, and she wishes Charlie a happy birthday. She was a Foosball wizard. A pimply boy asks William if Charlie is retarded. He just shakes his head. William tells the boy that he thinks a lot. When it’s time to leave, William has to drag Charlie off the pinball machines. At 12, he was too big to make a scene. William drives fast, stopping at the railroad tracks, banging the steering wheel. They were at the end of a line of cars waiting for a train to pass. Freighters plowed through day and night. You just had to wait. William lights a Camel and Charlie tries to copy him, but William pulls it from his mouth, asking if he has to do everything he does. Tells him he doesn’t want their father breaking his door down at 2 am. Charlie wants to apologise for not making up a lie on the phone, but he doesn’t. He drops Charlie at home behind the Cougar but doesn’t come in. Charlie tells him he likes the girl, Colleen. William tells him her name means ‘Irish Girl’. Inside, his father has a chocolate birthday cake from the bakers, gifts for him. He asks where William took him, and he says the movies, it was his birthday present. He tries to walk away and his father pulls him back, saying he smells of smoke and pot. His father holds his arms so intensely, red-faced, and Charlie wonders if he’s having a heart attack. Afterwards, Charlie will wonder if this was the exact moment William jumped the blue light.

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