The parcel was on the table in the kitchen.
Waiting for him.
It was propped there, against the ketchup. Facing the door, so he'd see it. Brown cardboard, from Amazon.
— Nice one.
Aoife was at the counter, chopping something. He picked up the package.
— What is it?
— A puppy, said Aoife. He pulled back the flap.
— Gift wrapped. For fuck sake.
He read the message. I love you. XXX
— Loveyoutoo, he muttered.
She smiled. He was imitating the boys. And he was Jimmy again, not the jittery lump she'd seen leaving the house earlier. He pulled off the ribbon and tore at the blue wrapping paper.
He looked at the yellow cover, and laughed.
— Brilliant. Chemotherapy & Radiation for Dummies. Fuckin' brilliant.
— You like it?
— Love it.
He laughed again.
— Fuckin' great. He was delighted. And so was she.
— You haven't read it before, no?
He held her with one arm and held the book over her head. He read the blurb at the top of the cover.
— Understand cancer treatment options, get a handle on the side effects, and feel better.
He lowered the book.
— Fuckin' hell. I feel better already. He kissed her.
— You're welcome.
He flicked quickly through the book — lots of lists and pictures.
— It'll be very useful, he said. — Very instructive.
— It was supposed to be a joke.
— I know, he said. — And it is. A good one as well. Because, especially. Let's face it. You're not great at the jokes.
— I am! Am I not?
— Oh Jesus.
It was Mahalia. She'd stopped at the door.
— Is it, like, safe to come in?
— Why wouldn't it be? said Jimmy.
— The flirting, said Mahalia. — It's disgusting. At your age, like.
— Feck off, you.
She passed him, on her way to the fridge.
— Don't eat anything, May, said Aoife. — Dinner'll be in a minute.
— You should be happy I'm not, like, anorexic, said Mahalia.
— We are, said Jimmy. — Very happy. Although now, the way things are goin' in this country, some anorexic kids wouldn't be such a bad idea.
— Ah, Jimmy! He's joking, May.
— No, I'm not, said Jimmy. — D'you know what a recession is, May?
— Yeah, actually, said Mahalia. — I do. A period of --
She lifted her hands and did the quotation marks thing with her index fingers.
— temporary --
She dropped her hands.
— economic decline during which trade and industrial activity are, like, reduced.
They stared at her as she shut the door of the fridge.
— That's brilliant, said Jimmy. — Where'd yeh learn that?
— School, said Mahalia. — Hello!
— Can you say it in Irish?
— The sound of silent laughter, said Mahalia, as she went past him, out.
— Where did she come from?
— My side, definitely.
Jimmy found a good picture in the book. He read the caption.
— A healthy, protein-rich breakfast starts the day off right.
— Can't argue with that.
— Looks like an omelette, said Jimmy. — The picture's a bit grainy. Tomatoes, mushrooms.
She said nothing.
He read a heading — the book was full of them.
— Embracing carbohydrates and fats.
— Jesus, said Aoife. — It never occurred to me that you'd read the fucking thing.
Jimmy slapped the book shut.
— Fair enough, he said.
— It's a horrible word, though, isn't it?
Jimmy had brought the book up to the bed.
— So loaded, said Aoife.
— Yeah, said Jimmy. — Anyway, look it. I won't be goin' for a wig.
— It'd just be stupid.
— No, said Aoife. — I agree. It's just the thought. Your hair --
— Hardly me best feature, said Jimmy. — Let's keep it real, love. She loved what he'd said but it couldn't stop the tears. He joined her; he couldn't help it. It had become the nightly event — nearly every night. They often chatted as they cried, as if they were just chopping onions.
— Will the kids accept me without hair? Jimmy asked.
— I don't — why wouldn't they?
— Well, said Jimmy. — Like — they've grown up with it.
— It's a bit thinner, said Aoife. — Sorry.
— I know, said Jimmy. — It's still there but. And it started — we call it receding in the trade. Another fuckin' recession.
— There's a little patch at the back.
— Fuck off now.
— It's sweet.
She put her hand on the back of his head.
— Thanks for that, said Jimmy. — Anyway --
— Shave it off, said Aoife.
— Good idea. Brilliant. Now?
— Your head's a lovely shape.
— I know. Now?
— Yes, said Aoife. — Tomorrow.
— Fuck that. I'm doin' it now. He got out of the bed.
— They can see me bald and healthy.
— Can it not wait till — ?
He was gone. She heard him stomping quietly into the bathroom. She heard the water. She heard something drop. The water went off. She heard nothing — then the water again. She thought about going after him. She wanted to watch him do it. She wanted to help — she wanted to stop him. She heard what she guessed was Jimmy soaping his head. She heard — she thought she heard a scrape, his razor.
She heard his feet. He was back.
— It's too long.
He was holding a towel, one of the good white ones, to the side of his head.
— What did you do?
He climbed into the bed. With no groans at all. She could tell: he was excited, worked up.
— I cut the side o' me fuckin' head, he told her. He was grinning and grimacing.
— I'm a fuckin' eejit, he said.
— Take it out of the way there.
She held the hand that was holding the towel and made him lift it away from his head, behind his ear.
— Why did you start there? she asked.
— Don't know, said Jimmy. — I didn't want to start at the front. The top, like. In case I made a balls of it.
— You did.
— I know, he said. — But it's hidden. You'd want to be lookin'.
— I am.
— Is it bad?
She took the towel from him and flapped it open. She pointed at the speck.
— It felt worse.
— I'm sure.
— You sounded like Mahalia there. Like.
— You'll be fine, she said.
— I'll get it cut short tomorrow, he said. — A three blade or somethin'.
She hadn't a clue what that meant. There'd never been short hair in the house. The boys had disappeared behind their hair years ago. They came out to eat.
— Then I'll finish the job at home, said Jimmy.
She didn't ask him why he wouldn't just let the barber shave his head, and avoid the blood and drama. The book, the decision to go bald — she hadn't seen him so lively and happy in weeks.
— How's the poor heddy-weddy?
— Fuck off.
From The Guts by Roddy Doyle. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Roddy Doyle, 2013.