Lynn left. He invited her to stay the night with him, but she declined. He sat in bed, Rowdy at his feet. He thought about high school seven years ago, where he and the other guys played Irish Mercy. They had tournaments in the locker rooms in between lunch and pre-calculus. Two guys held each other’s hand, almost tenderly, and then took turns slapping the other on the forearm as hard as possible. The first one to pull away lost, and the winner was a real man. Hobkins must have played at least a week’s worth of Irish Mercy in his four years at St. Dymphna. He never lost a game.
By the third slap, Hobkins knew everything about his opponent. Some tried their hardest not to show pain, standing stiff and stone-faced every time his palm met their skin. Others held their breath and began to shake when their arms turned red. A few kids didn’t hide their pain, instead biting their lower lips, wincing, or letting out soft gasps as if surprised. One even laughed at every hit he took. He made three kids cry—Jimmy Crocks, C.J., and Babyface. Sometimes guys got angry and stomped off mid match. Most came back for more after the sting went away. Some looked away and others like to watch. But everyone, from the criers to the smilers, screamed “Mercy.”
Eventually people dared him to play a fair game of Irish Mercy. He began playing games against two, three, and four people. One guy once used a ruler, and another threw punches. One day someone used his belt. Hobkins’s arm turned dark by next period, and stayed that way for two weeks.
On the last day before graduation Hobkins challenged everyone in the locker room, and they pulled the belts from their pants and took turns whipping his arm. They stood in a long line and waited three seconds in between each hit. He felt like his arm was tearing open each time, and when he looked down he saw the skin turn bright white, then red, then dark. It felt like fire moving all the way up and down his body until he could feel it in his head.
“Will you just stop already?” his best friend asked.
“It’s not even that bad, man,” Hobkins said.
His friend skipped his turn. Ricky, a notorious asshole, whipped him three times, one right after another. He remembered pulling hairs off his leg one by one to distract him. Tears formed and rolled down his hot face.
“Do you give up?” someone said.
His arm began to bleed from their thick, jagged cuts. When someone wiped it with a towel he screamed like a dying animal. People backed off, afraid to continue.
“Please say mercy,” his friend said.
“No, I’m fine,” Hobkins said. “Another one.”
“So do you always use your songs to get a girl in bed?” Lynn asked the night they slept together.
She ran her fingertips along his chest. Rowdy, who had been locked out of the room during, now sat facing them at the foot of the bed, watching Lynn. They sipped at the drinks she made for them.
“It usually doesn’t take the full set,” he said.
“I had this one song back when I was playing,” Lynn said, “about an old boyfriend. He was a scumbag. He gets ED at the end.”
“I don’t have anything like that.”
Hobkins motioned to Rowdy, who snuggled underneath his other arm.
“So who’s that girl from your first song? Lucy.” she asked.
Rowdy grumbled at her voice, and Hobkins patted his head to calm him.
“She’s not a real person. I wrote it about leaving Chicago after high school to come here.”
It was snowing when Hobkins left, so badly he wondered if something was trying to hold him there. It was heavy, wet snow, thick flakes swirling like a tornado among the city lights. He was alone on the I-90. He pushed into higher gear when the wind picked up like a moan in the night.
The city was frozen. Stranded cars in parking spot snowdrifts, storefront open signs flickered to no one, green lights waved on empty streets. Hobkins passed his high school, which looked small in the night. Down the old block, a floor lamp flickered in his best friend’s window, lighting bands of snow as they passed. He left months before, but his mother read in her chair. He called Jess outside in her baggy shirt and shorts. She had thrown out his jacket and old guitar. He told her to fuck off.