Ha-Ha, Shirt

by Darrin Doyle

Shirt has something sweet he isn't giving up, but it's tucked into a front pocket of his jeans and so is impossible to get at from my position on the dance floor, where I'm busy doing a solo gyration and blinking to create a strobe effect. I keep reaching out to grab at it, but what the fuck am I doing because I'm ten feet away from him and that sweet thing in his pocket keeps bumping against the upper thigh of Mizz Offset Breasts, who has a fine pair of legs but seems to have lost the battle of the brush this morning, judging by the chicken-wing protruding off the back of her head. And those tits are not appealing in any way, although every last one of my buddies'll tell you I'm your man when it comes to tits. Big-nippled, one-nippled, risen or deflated, mouthful or three-course, sweaty-bottomed or rashed, I've appreciated them all. Never had crooked ones, though, and maybe because of my missing contact lens, looking at them is making me nauseated and I need to sit down.

Shirt must like what he sees in Lopsided because him and Double-Decker are groping and grappling and getting all twisted together, making out with tongues and licking whatever they can get away with licking in public. I come barside and lean over to Ha-Ha and say I might puke if he buys me a scotch and so he does, but he spits in it to make me earn it.

It isn't an aggressive gesture coming from Ha-Ha, though from anyone else it certainly would be. But no, I gotta include Shirt because he's as good a friend as Ha-Ha. I mostly feel close to Ha-Ha, and swapping fluids like blood brothers is a natural way to show our connectedness. We ended up at the Club Go-Go without reason or desire only because Shirt declared his physical illness at being in close quarters with me and Ha-Ha during our regular weekly cruise around Kalamazoo. He said "Fuck you both, your breath stinks," and now Ha-Ha screams in my ear what sounds like a song, "You and me are on the same page, my friend, same page." He tink-tinks my glass with his and down go the shots, mine burning enough inside to make me holler, "God fuck the little children! I got a paycheck!"

Me and Ha-Ha, through loud shouting conversation, decide that enough is enough, friends like us should inform their buddy when he's making an error. Shirt has been less than himself lately, and only by being with his chums, and not this skin-and-bones woman, can he truly be the Shirt we've come to love.

"Because there ain't shoes in his shoebox," Ha-Ha's tilted, puddly mouth is HEY-HEYing in my left ear, "Son of a bitch in tears on his bed and he won't talk to me and he's got a shoebox on his lap and you ain't telling me there's SHOES in that box? No way!"

Pretty soon we drag Shirt's ass outta there because I have a sudden puke problem all across the bar, which makes the bouncer vise my shoulder and escort me outside. He won't let me touch his hand, the gripping one, even though I rub my face on it and say, "I'm such a pretty pretty kitten." Fucknut pulls my hair to make me stop and calls me a homo fuck as his exit from the scene.

Shirt and Ha-Ha come outside and find me sitting on the pavement, and it isn't yet 2 AM so we drive to the Hot-N-Now for olive burgers to fill our stomachs, which is good except Shirt makes a scene in the drive-thru and winds up crushing an olive burger in his fist and shaking it at the lady and yelling "This is extremely cheap!" with a lot of conviction and intensity while the burger guts fall all over him and the silver ledge of the burger window. I try to salvage some of the massacre from his lap after we pay less than what we owe and gun it, but Shirt knocks my hand away and tells me to eat my own goddamn burger, which I do.

Shirt's fast-food mutilation and drive-thru harassment are funny-but-loud reminders of the recent change in his disposition. For two years I've called Shirt a friend and for those same two years he's been grieving the suicide of his father, which to hear him tell it was a surprise but not surprising, and every time he distinctions this way I understand a little bit more what he means, like hearing the same New Testament readings over and over in church, but as your life changes, so do the words, even though you've heard them a thousand times before and even can remember them from when you were a child.

Shirt's grieving has never been violent. Most always he's quiet and tucked into himself, which I generally perceive to be a sign of wisdom. He's a carpenter by trade, skilled at putting up walls and whatnot, but business lately according to Ha-Ha suffers from Shirt's oversleeping and his verbal outbursts against his brother Phil, who just last week finally said Screw It All and moved to Louisiana to run a telemarketing office. This, and the shoebox speculation, and the three-weeks-ago home removal of his own dead molar with a pair of pliers, and now the olive burger massacre, are all alterations to the Shirt I know, but how can I fucking see when I've got only one contact lens and can't stop winking back and forth between blur clear blur clear blur clear?

It isn't until we get back to Ha-Ha/Shirt's and I try unsuccessfully to get either of them to fuck me or let me fuck them, that I remember Shirt has something sweet in his pocket, only now I can't remember what it is, and can't think of it because Ha-Ha's calling me a faggot like a tough guy with a cigarette dangling from his mouth while he works the Nintendo controller. This macho talk is typical of Ha-Ha only when we're with Shirt, which is always, lately. Shirt has a power thing over his roommate that makes Ha-Ha behave against his natural inclinations, which are to be polite and nonjudgemental and to fuck me or let me fuck him, if and when the fancy strikes us. Shirt's power thing doesn't work on me, so there's a triangle with the three of us - me and Ha-Ha secure enough to once in a while release our sexual buildups when women aren't convenient, Shirt mouthless and intent on ignoring, but never unkind. At the moment I can visualize the triangle above my face, as a glowing shape rotating in the air.

So I'm singing at the top of my lungs one of the worst songs ever written, which is Leavin on a Jet Plane by that fuck John fuck whatever. I'll suck a dick. I don't care about it. We all got needs, and I'll suck the dick of a friend if it helps get that shit outta your system. No different than helping a buddy jack up his car and replace the exhaust. I ain't a faggot by any stretch. I just like to fuck people when I'm drunk cuz it feels nice to have an orgasm with company and women are a bitch to get rid of sometimes. Ha-Ha backs me up on this! even though he won't look at me right now and his ashes are dropping all over his Nintendo controller. Most guys think I'm queer for saying it, but you know what? They're all faggots anyway, every last one, and they just aren't honest.

We sit around and farewell a twelve-pack, then I'm handed the whiskey bottle, the regular Saturday night routine playing out like clockwork. I'm thinking about how this is no less valid than the church routine I'll be practicing in about seven hours, us here with the same type of devotion only no prayers except internal ones directed at no God in particular and perhaps not prescribed to us by the Good Book. We're all doing our own thing, Ha-Ha at the video game pushing buttons and smoke-blowing, Shirt throwing karate kicks at the wall, knocking down a lamp, me speaking in tongues on my back while my mind makes pictures of Sarah and me and our baby daughter on the bandage-looking ceiling.

The unbelievable well of Sarah's insides and the buckets of it she wastes on me! It makes me want to puke again so I go face-down into the carpet but nothing comes out, so I lick lick lick that carpet and think about forming a hairball in my gut and pray the hairball on the way back up will taste like Jim Beam. For six years now she's borne my sexual misdeeds with women I'd barely met and sometimes men and of course the magnificent squeaky plastic LuLu. And even though Sarah only knows about a single digit portion of these intercourses, just the fact that she keeps forgiving and forgiving is a knife in my brain, because I know it damages her. She isn't any pushover, but she has a heart and knows how to live, I suppose, in a true Christian fashion, whereas I've been just gestures and words for a long time now, and sometimes I can't remember how Sarah used to dress when she taught at the elementary school, or what the third-graders gave her as presents, because now they're in a dusty box in the basement, because I insisted that Sarah didn't need to work anymore, that the baby was the most important thing, that I, the man, would make our ends meet. I can still hear that goddamn hi-lo beeping and that motherfucker Don— bless him because he tried—yelling in his cough drop voice from across the warehouse, "Look out, D!" I didn't look out. I never look out.

I'm practically puking, slamming my never-hurt foot on the floor, and there's a tremendous knock at the door, like a cop-knock. I sit up ready to pound some cop ass.

Turns out it's the cab driver they called to get me the fuck outta their apartment. I'm pissed at Shirt and I tell him so, and he points and laughs at me and says, "Get the fuck home. Get outta here." He pushes me out the door. I don't notice much about the cab ride except putting out my cigarette on the back of the driver's seat and getting yelled at. On my front lawn I fall down, which bruises my forearm on a tree root, but I make it inside to Sarah and my daughter in one piece.

Sarah's asleep on the couch with the television gone static. I go upstairs to remove my contact lens and put on my glasses. I grab a porno from my dresser and bring it downstairs, pop it in the VCR, and kneel in front of the screen so if she wakes she won't be able to readily identify the screen action. Over the years I've perfected my masturbation techniques, which you would think would make the sexual act unnecessary but actually just feeds the fire. I shoot a wad onto the carpet, rub it clean with a paper towel, catch my breath, go to the kitchen for another beer.

I repeat this ritual an hour later after a bedside with the baby where I sipped and stared and wondered what the hell this child would turn out like, hoping she would not eventually hate her father. I hear the birds chirping outside as I'm wiping the jism off my hand and figure I'd best get off to bed because that's what people do. I leave Sarah on the couch.

I can't sleep, thinking about how long I can get away with drawing workman's comp. Half a year ago, hobbled by breaks in metatarsals, proximals, distals in the toes, now the foot is month-long fine. Still, I grimace and "Fuck!" for the doctor. Muscle damage is tougher to disprove. Checks keep coming, also phone calls every two days from Don the foreman, asking "How's it coming?" I can wiggle my toes, do a jig, but I say, "I'm in a lot of pain, Don. Doctor says maybe another month." Sarah turns both cheeks, acts like she doesn't hear. I keep thinking that maybe out in the bushes eventually will be FraudBusters with a video camera, who'll point it at me, pass the tape to a judge who'll send me to Jackson and I'll lose my wife and baby.

About six o'clock the phone rings, and I pick it up before the first ring dies. It's Shirt, saying that Ha-Ha's sleeping, and "I want to smoke some weed and show you what's in my pocket." I search his voice for signs of anger, but he's sloshed. That's my assessment. He's got something in his pocket and he thinks I want to see it, and maybe I do but I can't remember what it is. Either way, smoking a little grass sounds all right.

I re-dress while a headache makes itself known above my eyebrows. I kiss the baby with lips stuck out so as not to stubble her, and remember the time Sarah caught me in the bedroom fucking LuLu the blow-up doll. It looked funny, me going at it with a piece of plastic, but after we got married, Sarah wouldn't admit anything humorous in it at all and made me sign up for free counseling at the Y, although later I could make her chuckle about it if she had a glass of bourbon in her and I'd been good for a while.

Just as I'm finishing my cigarette, Shirt drives up in his Buick Skylark with the one mini-spare on the left rear. I climb in. I don't like the way he's kneading the wheel like a breadstick. He appears crazy. His right eyelid is lowered and lazy, reminding me of my dad, who looked the same when he was drunk and soaking in the bathtub with a bag of Doritos in his hands.

Shirt's very nearly the highest I've seen him in the two years since our acquaintance-making at the Déjà Vu, which is a lot of days and a lot of highs ago. He's honking at trees, screaming Let the niggers free! They'll help us manage the banks! running up the curbs when we turn corners, goosing the engine, giving the windshield five, six, seven, eight - fucking hell, man, stop it already! - hose-downs with fluid without wiping it off. It's a mess, and I ream him for smoking without me, seeing that I have to be back home in three hours in order to make ten o'clock mass with the family. Shirt hates to think about God or the House of God, or all the prayers floating up into the sky without his name attached to them. He turns to me and says, in a slowed-down voice, that I, especially, should understand, because God's a vibrator and going to church is like sitting on a vibrator. I take his meaning to be that church-going is pleasurable but phony and without any lasting emotional value. I mostly agree with him. However, I can see the need in our lives for pleasurable-but-phony activities, but I don't say as much, figuring now's not the time to argue.

Shirt pulls to the curb in front of a 7-11. He turns off the engine and hollers at me for not letting him get with Lopsided Double-Decker Tits, only he refers to her as "Anna" so it takes me a few minutes to understand. He says he hasn't gotten any in about forty weeks. A genuine sadness sets up shop on his face. He's on the tubby side, doesn't shave often enough, has pockmarks on his cheeks, probably from the High School Acne Wars, and looks out at the world through minuscule, beady eyes. It's easy to see the reason for his drought.

I tell him straight up that if it's fucking he wants then we should just go on and do it. It makes me cranky thinking we drove around for twenty minutes doing everything but flashing a neon sign saying "DUI" when all he's looking for is an orgasm that could be attained without the delay that's gonna cause me another sleep-free evening on the planet Earth.

Nothing of the nice Shirt appears in his eyes when he looks at me. It's a bitter look, watery and unforgiving. He says to stop it with that shit, to stop it once and for all. I say I wasn't making a command but only a suggestion. I try to explain again about biology, and our great human ability to interact with the world inside our imaginations. I tell him that wasting this gift is like a slap in the face to God himself. He puts his hard hand over my mouth and tells me that Ha-Ha is taking my bullshit seriously. He says that this very evening, after I left, Ha-Ha climbed into bed and tried to fuck him against his will. Shirt's crying at this point, his fingers clamping tighter on my cheekbones. He says Ha-Ha got a beating because of me and that I need to just quit my fucking bullshit.

I push his hand off me. My mind says one thing loudly: "Ha-Ha would not force anybody to do anything, least of all to please him sexually." If this is not true, then the formula I've used to evaluate my friends is not the proper formula. In my mind Shirt is the dominant one in their household, the quiet, shoebox-hiding, self-dentalizing, wall-kicking one, the one who needs to look at himself for a good long while before passing judgment. I tell him this, then hop out of the car and run up to the 7-11. I figure I can't buy a beer, but I can steal one.

When I come out, Shirt's gone. I look up and down the surrounding streets for any sign of the Buick, but I get nothing. I can't dally for long because of the frigid forty-ouncer under my shirt. I head home.

The sun is just coming up to light my way. This makes me happy. So too does the golden quality of the sunlight, the sharpness of the air being sucked into my nose. I feel sober again. Sober, tired, and thirsty. I see a rabbit hopping in the junkyard across the street and wonder if it's actually the owner under the spell of some demon witch hag. I know that demon witch hags still exist in this world, having fucked two of them last month, and on this thought, I notice that my armpits smell. I sniff them. I see a hurby-curby tipped over with its guts spilled out onto the road. The flies are feasting. A woman passes me driving a Chevy S10 pickup. She makes me feel bad about something with the way her eyes flash at me. It has to be a lie, what Shirt said about Ha-Ha. If it isn't, then Ha-Ha is no one's friend. The yeasty King Cobra stench under my nose is better than the taste going down. I have a headache. Ha-Ha is my friend, although it was Shirt who introduced me to him. Does that make Shirt the superior officer? Ha-Ha—what now, five or six months?—I suppose is not allowed onto the level of long-term where I place Shirt and Sarah, and even the baby pulls rank at ten months. Ha-Ha has held three different jobs in these past five/six months. . .is that a sign of evil? Me with no job, I'm not to say. I pull long from my King Cobra, my goal being to finish the bottle before arriving home.

I put the empty bottle in a sack in the kitchen. Sarah's upstairs running the faucet, making her preparations. The baby's crying, which always gets a response from me, so I climb the staircase, take her from the crib and hold her and sway.

We make it to church on time. Sarah sticks her cold shoulder in my face the whole morning, but when we we're kneeling I use my hands to make shadow puppets on the pew in front of us, which makes her smile. The baby's a sweetheart, not sleeping but looking at all the praying with big eyes, trying to absorb everything. When the time is upon us we join the communion line. The music is solemn and the people are orderly to the point of creepiness, moving stone-faced, almost sad, up the aisles. I take the body of Christ into my mouth, sip more than what's appropriate at the cup of blood, go back to the pew to kneel and munch the wafer. This is where I'm supposed to ponder my life circumstances, which is always difficult for me, being forced to drop my natural thoughts and replace them with as much unnatural reflection and conciliation as will fit into three minutes. I send God a brain telegraph suggesting He protect the little ones like my daughter and make every storm have a rainbow at the end of it. I laugh out loud at this, bringing an elbow jab from the wife.

On the drive home, I don't think about anything but my head kissing the pillow, but when we get there and open the door, it shocks me like a radio in the bathtub to see Shirt sitting in our living room, pointing a pistol at our faces. He's dark under the eyes and bloodshot in his whites, and next to my recliner, which he's sitting in, is his goddamn shoebox, open and empty and on its side like a wrecked car.

He tells us to stop right there and to do whatever he says. His hair's sculpted into a cone, though I doubt he knows about his hair shape. Sweat's beaded on his forehead. Sarah's "You've got to be fucking kidding me!" gives the baby a reason to scream so before I know it the scene's chaotic. I tell Shirt to let me put the baby away cuz I don't like guns to be in the same room with her, and Shirt obliges, maybe outta kindness but maybe outta the desire to not kill a baby. I take her upstairs and set her in the crib and coo-coo for a minute while I dial 911, but I don't feel comfortable knowing there's a gun being brandished at my wife, so I head back downstairs, just after I whisper the details to the emergency lady and hang up.

After a lot of bullshit despondency and gesticulating and tears from Shirt, it finally comes out that he wants to fuck Sarah. I get pissed off at that. Sarah's naturally terrified and disbelieving. She lets loose like she has let loose on me before, only this time without a whiff of affection, telling Shirt to shut up and stop fucking around and get outta our lives and back to his fucking house and to leave me the fuck alone, once and for all. The baby's a miniature echo from upstairs, only she's not making real words.

I cut in and say, "No, Shirt. You can't touch her." Nothing in my book is more evil and wrong than forcing sex on a person, and there's no way Sarah's having it, even to avoid being shot, so I call Shirt a few more names and say if he wants to fuck someone just to fuck me and move on with life so none of us has to die or be put into a compromising position.

He knows he's wrong. I can see in his eyes the lack of conviction, the confusion. I've only done good toward him and he knows it, and I can see this thought bouncing around in his brain. He takes off his shirt, which reminds us of why he's called Shirt. His fear of skin cancer means he never disrobes while outside on the job, and as a result he's constantly bearing a deep tan on his arms and neck, leaving his torso as pale as the underside of a rock after a rain. It's a nickname that Ha-Ha gave him, even though he never asked for it.

He wants to be in command, telling me to bend over and pull down my pants. I follow his suggestion.

I hear him undoing his trousers. I'm pretty sure it's a tear that drips onto my backside as he pushes up my shirt. He keeps muttering under his breath, things like Fuckin faggot, I'm gonna fuck you, you little shit, you little faggot cunt, while I focus my stare on the wood grain of the end table upon which I'm resting my chin. My ears are focused on Sarah's mouth-covered crying, and I realize that for a long time I've been hoping for a way to tell her, 'I'm a terrible man,' and mean it, mean it that her repeated love and forgiveness, while intensely kind, is only deepening my grief in ways indescribable. I think in this moment that my bending over with naked asshole parted, naked asshole ready and able to take the rape meant for her, is the only way I can tell her that I'm truly terrible, truly terrible and terribly sorry, and to please please please stop forgiving me, please, because I will never stop hurting you.

"Go on, you desperate asshole," I yell up at Shirt. "Get going, we ain't got all day!"

It probably isn't a good idea to provoke him, but I can't help myself, being scared as I am, and my daughter upstairs like a shrieking teapot, and my wife watching a re-enactment of what she has probably already had nightmares about. The motherfucker has a gun pointed at her. And there's that empty shoebox, just like Ha-Ha said, not three feet from my left arm. And it's as useless as Shirt's dick.

It's half-hard, poking at me. Sarah's bawling, and I tell her to shhh because everything is gonna be fine once Limp Dick finishes satisfying himself, which makes Shirt step back and kick me a couple times in the ribs. It's an ugly moment; I've never known Shirt to do anything violent to anything other than a wall, and recently his molar, and I truly have believed all along that we are friends. Here he is about to rape me after wanting to rape my wife and on top of it all bruising my ribs and giving me breathing difficulties. I reevaluate things in the slowed-down seconds, my friendships, my behavior, the way sexuality talks to a man louder than any other voice he can hear. I've never been the poster child for celibacy, having fucked inflatables and twelve women and five men during the course of my four-year marriage, but in my heart I can not believe that what I've done is cruel and this here is dirty and cruel and evil.

We all hear the sirens while his cock is ramming itself in a fruitless fashion against my rectum. I'm surprised he doesn't blow my head apart the instant they come into earshot, but I suspect he has no ill will toward me, and is rather experiencing a destructive impulse toward his own life. Although I did phone the police while upstairs with my daughter, I will not admit this no matter how loudly Shirt curses me to do so.

There's a pause, during which Shirt's breathing is the predominant sound—I can sense him back there, can't see him because my eyes are closed; he's a vibration behind me and above me—and I can smell my Jesus-blood breath in my cupped hand. Then I hear the gunshot. It's nothing more than a tiny pop! and for a split second I feel disappointed by it.

I'm left relatively dry until his body falls on top of me. Then there's blood everywhere, most of it hot and gushing out of his nose all over my back. I'm unable to move under the sloppy commotion. His body twitches on me for about five seconds, making movements like he's really trying to fuck me, with his cock finally feeling hard and everything, until Sarah kicks him off. She comes up on me and tells me everything's okay. The cops storm inside and confirm that Shirt is dead and that Sarah and I aren't injured and that there's a bullet lodged in the corner of the ceiling, above the television.

They find a condom in his pocket, Trojan brand. It surprises me, while I'm being toweled by Sarah and pen-lighted by the paramedics, that this rubber was the item I was so fixated upon during the previous night's festivities. I keep this detail a secret from Sarah because it seems like the thing to do.


They bury Shirt in the cemetery near his mother's house three days later. Sarah couldn't bring herself to clean up the blood and goo on the floor and ceiling, and I can't say I blamed her. You'd have thought the cops would take care of it, but they did a half-assed job as they enjoy doing with most things. The floor cleaned up no problem. I scrubbed the wall area for thirty minutes, then gave up because the pink hue wouldn't go away. I brought a half-can of white paint up from the basement and gave the spot a new coat.

I'm tipsy at the funeral home, but nothing compared to the way I've been for the weeks and months preceding. My foot has been healed up for about thirty days and I've been milking my workman's comp—this fact is a city bus in my mind, passing by hour after hour, day after day—and I experience a little revelation when I see the corpse of Randall Paris Jerome in his coffin and hear his cousins, aunts and uncles, mother, and even his brother Phil from Louisiana, crying into their handkerchiefs. I decide right then that unless something major comes up, I'll definitely go back to the moving company within a week or two, as a way of reacquainting myself with humanity.

Out in the graveyard, they're still making a lot of noise while the priest tries to outshout them and the wind. All I catch from Father Vincent is, "I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly," and then, a few minutes later, "Amen."

To these people, what Shirt did or didn't do doesn't matter. There is a stock of tears set aside for him that they'll use. Even after his psychotic break, which is the term heard thirty times around the funeral home, even after having his dick and his pistol poke me in invasive ways—even after all this, even I spit out a few tears.

I'm busy concentrating on the shiny casket, avoiding eye contact with Ha-Ha. His face is there, across the pit, between Louisiana Phil and Louisiana Phil's wife. One of Ha-Ha's eyes has clearly been whacked by something solid. People are laying hands on the casket for the last time, saying their good-byes, walking away. I don't feel like touching anything. I stand rooted, and chew my gum with my mouth closed.

After the coffin sinks into the ground, Ha-Ha walks up and hugs me. His right eye is puffed shut and the color of a mulberry. It feels wrong now, hugging Ha-Ha, what with Shirt's accusation. The swollen eye is like Shirt's beyond-the-grave message—see, I told you!

I don't want to know the truth. At this point it's all words, anyway. We walk up the hill toward the parking lot. To make him think that I think that none of this was his fault, I tell Ha-Ha that Shirt was bottled up and sexually frustrated, and that near as I could figure this was the reason for his insanity. Ha-Ha says he suspected as much, with the way Shirt had acted for a long time now. He discloses to me that Shirt used to come into his room and jack off when he thought Ha-Ha was asleep.

Ha-Ha sips from a flask and shares a few belts with me. It tastes like Jim Beam, only cheaper. He says that Shirt was never violent toward him, that this shiner is from Shirt accidentally elbowing him in the face when they were playing Nintendo after I left the other night. Every word he says comes out all covered in shit. We smoke and he talks. It troubles me that the message his eyes flash is not what's going on inside his head. I want to confront him with Shirt's version of the shiner, but I don't. I yawn.

Once the cigarettes are squashed under our shoes, we shake hands. I watch Ha-Ha climb into his truck, knowing he'll never call me again and that I won't call him either, and that if we see one another across the pool tables at the Green Top, we'll pretend we're seeing strangers. This certain alliance is finished.

Darrin Doyle's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, H_NGM_N, Cottonwood, Alaska Quarterly Review, Antietam Review, Laurel Review, The MacGuffin, and other journals. He teaches at the University of Louisville and is seeking a publisher for his novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo.