Mohawk by Richard Russo



  “What makes Richard Russo so admirable as a novelist is that his natural grace as a storyteller is matched by his compassion for his characters.”

  —John Irving

  “[Mohawk is] one of the most refreshing first novels to come along in years.… Russo does a wonderful job of setting out life in a small town, and his characters are just superb.”

  —Boston Herald

  “A kind of novel that isn’t often written seriously anymore … Russo is a skillful, serious, and ambitious writer.”

  —Philadelphia Inquirer

  “Richard Russo is a new writer to watch.… Mohawk is a wonderfully satisfying tale.”

  —San Diego Union

  A L S O B Y R I C H A R D R U S S O

  The Risk Pool

  Nobody’s Fool

  Straight Man

  Empire Falls

  The Whore’s Child

  Bridge of Sighs

  That Old Cape Magic


  Copyright © 1986 by Richard Russo

  All rights reserved under International and

  Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published

  in the United States by Vintage Books,

  a division of Random House, Inc., New York,

  and simultaneously in Canada

  by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Russo, Richard, 1949—


  (Vintage contemporaries)

  A Vintage Original.

  I. Title.

  PS3568.U812M6 986 813′.54 86–40133


  The author gratefully acknowledges support from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and Southern Connecticut State University. And special thanks for faith and assistance to Jean Findlay, Mrs. Richard LeVarn, Jim Russo, Kevin McIlvoy, Robert C. S. Downs, Kjell Meling, Kitty Florey, Ken Florey, and Greg Gottung.

  The town of Mohawk, like its residents, is located

  in the author’s imagination.

  Author photograph © Jere DeWaters

  eISBN: 978-0-307-80984-1


  For Barbara, Ernily, and Kate

  And for Dick LeVarn

  In Loving Memory



  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page




  Part One Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Part Two Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Chapter 51

  Chapter 52

  Chapter 53

  Chapter 54

  Chapter 55

  Chapter 56

  Chapter 57

  Chapter 58

  Chapter 59

  Chapter 60

  Chapter 61

  Chapter 62

  Chapter 63

  Chapter 64

  Chapter 65

  Chapter 66

  Chapter 67

  About the Author

  But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.

  Herman Melville, Moby-Dick


  The back door to the Mohawk Grill opens on an alley it shares with the junior high. When Harry throws back the bolt from inside and lets the heavy door swing outward, Wild Bill is waiting nervously in the dark gray half-light of dawn. There is no way of telling how long he has been pacing, listening for the thunk of the bolt, but he looks squitchier than usual today. Driving his hands deeper into his pockets, Wild Bill waits while Harry inspects him curiously and wonders if Bill’s been in some kind of trouble during the night. Probably not, Harry finally decides. Bill looks disheveled, as always, his black pants creaseless, alive with light-colored alley dust, the tail of his threadbare, green-plaid, button-down shirt hanging out, but there’s nothing unusually wrong with his appearance. Harry is glad, because he’s late opening this morning and doesn’t have time to clean Wild Bill up.

  When Harry finally steps aside, Bill scoots by into the diner and climbs onto the first round stool at the end of the formica counter. Harry hooks the heavy door to the outside wall so the delivery men can come in the back way and the place can air out. A few flies will wander in off the street, but will end up stuck to the No Pest Strips dangling from the ceiling. Harry throws open the large windows in the front of the diner, creating a cool draft that stands Wild Bill’s thinning hair on end. Bill is in his middle thirties, but his baby-fine hair is falling out in patches and he looks as old as Harry, who is almost fifty.

  “Hungry?” Harry says.

  Wild Bill nods and studies the grill, which is sputtering butter. Harry lifts a large bag of link sausages and tosses several dozen on the grill, covering its entire surface, then separates them with the edge of his spatula, arranging them in impressive phalanxes. “It’s gonna be a while,” he warns.

  Wild Bill is beginning to look less anxious. The sputtering sausage calms him, and he watches hypnotized as the links spit and jump. The grease begins to puddle and inch toward the trough at the edge of the grill. Wild Bill would prevent its escape if he could because he likes the taste of sausage grease. Sometimes, when Harry remembers, he will scramble Wild Bill’s eggs in it before cleaning the surface. But Bill only gets eggs when he has money, which is seldom. Bill himself rarely has more than a few nickels, but for the last ten years, at the first of the month, an envelope has arrived at the Mohawk Grill containing a crisp ten-dollar bill and a note that says simply, “For William Gaffney.” Where it comes from is the only genuine mystery in Harry’s life. At first he thought the money came from the boy’s father, but that was before he met Rory Gaffney. Harry has met just about everyone who knows Wild Bill and determined by one means or another that it’s none of them. The money just appears. When it’s used up, Harry can be depended upon to stake Wild Bill to coffee and one of yesterday’s sticky buns before his customers come in, but Harry’s generosity has its limits, and he seldom gives away food that isn’t headed for the dumpster. Once, on Christmas two years before, Harry had got to feeling pretty blue about things in general, so to get rid of the depression he had cooked Wild Bill a big breakfast—juice, eggs, ham, pancakes, home fries, toast, jelly, and maple syrup—which the younger man wolfed, wide-eyed and grateful, before going out into the alley to be sick. Since then, Harry has been careful not to make the same mistake.

  “I want you to take out the trash this morning,” Harry says, turning sausages with his spatula.

  Wild Bill watches each flip like an expectant dog waiting for a mistake.

  “Hear me?”

  Wild Bill starts and looks at Harry.

  “I said I want you to take out the trash. You can have some toast.”


  “Yes, now.”

  Wild Bill is reluctant to leave—he likes to watch the sausage—but slides off the stool and goes to the back of the diner where Harry has stacked several bags of garbage. The flies have already discovered them and are attacking the plastic in a frenzy. Wild Bill deposits each of the bags in the dumpster and returns to his stool just as two pieces of toast pop up golden brown. Harry butters them sparingly and puts the toast on a saucer in front of Wild Bill. He almost asks if he’d got into a fight during the night, then decides not to. If Bill had, there would be the usual signs, because he isn’t much of a fighter. Usually, whoever starts the fight will give Bill a fat lip and then get embarrassed when, instead of getting mad, Wild Bill would just stand there, his arms dangling at his sides, looking as if he might cry.

  “You ain’t found yourself a girlfriend, have you?”

  Bill shakes his head, but he stops chewing his toast to look at Harry, who wonders if he might be lying, if he is capable of lying.

  “I promised your uncle I’d tell him if you got into trouble,” Harry warns.

  But Wild Bill has gone back to his toast, which he chews with exaggerated concentration, as if he fears making a mistake. There is a thud against the front door of the diner and Harry goes to unlock. The rolled up Mohawk Republican is lying in the entryway, and Harry returns with it after checking to make sure he didn’t hit the number the day before. The Republican knows its readership and prints the three-digit number in the upper left-hand corner of the front page above the headline, which today reads, in somewhat bolder type than usual, TANNERIES BLAMED FOR ABNORMAL AREA CANCER RATE. Harry skims the first short paragraph, in which a university study of Mohawk County concludes that people living in the county are three times more likely to contract cancer, leukemia, and several other serious diseases than elsewhere in the country. Persons who work in the tanneries and leather mills themselves or who reside near the Cayuga Creek, where the Morelock, Hunter and Cayuga tanneries are accused of dumping, are ten to twenty times more likely to contract one of the diseases listed on page B-6. Spokesmen for the tanneries deny that any dumping has occurred in nearly two decades and suggest that the recent findings are in all probability a statistical anomaly.

  Harry leaves the paper on the counter for anybody who wants to check Friday’s late racing results. The sausages done, he scoops them off the grill and into a metal tub. He will toss them back on to warm for a minute as the orders come in. What doesn’t get eaten by breakfast customers he’ll use in sandwiches later in the day. He knows within a link or two what is needed. There are few surprises in the diner, for which he is thankful. With the long spatula he moves the puddle of grease toward the trough before lining the glistening surface with rows of bacon strips.

  “Hey,” he says. Wild Bill’s busy thumbing toast crumbs off his saucer. “You don’t ever drink out of the crick, do you?”

  Wild Bill shakes his head.

  Harry shrugs. It was just an idea, but it would’ve explained a lot. Harry wasn’t around Mohawk when Wild Bill was a boy, but some people said he’d been normal once, more or less. The bacon begins to sizzle. Harry belches significantly and wipes his hands on the stomach of his apron. He feels the way he always does on Saturday morning after a hard night’s drinking. He has come directly to the diner without any sleep, and the sweet smell of frying meat has his stomach churning. It’s not his stomach he’s worrying about, though. He has proposed marriage to some woman during the course of the evening. When drinking, Harry is indiscriminate about women, to whom he invariably proposes. The women Harry ends up with on Friday nights usually say yes, and then he has to renege. On the plus side, they know he hasn’t any intention of marrying, so their feelings are never hurt. They say yes because it’s a long shot and their lives are full of long shots. They know Harry doesn’t need a wife and could do better if he were serious about taking one. There was a time when they could’ve done better than Harry, but that was several presidents ago. The calendar above the grill is for 1966, a year out of date. Whoever gave Harry the calendar the year before didn’t give him a new one this year. The months are the same and Harry doesn’t mind being a few days off.

  “Don’t get hooked up with women,” he mutters.


  “Any time.”

  Harry sees Bill eyeing yesterday’s sticky buns beneath the glass dome. He hands Bill one and dumps the rest. The bakery man will be along in a few minutes. Harry flips the bacon.

  On the other side of the wall is the sound of tramping feet on the staircase, which means the all-night poker game on the second floor is breaking up. This in turn means that Harry will have some early business. When the front door opens and several men enter, Wild Bill starts to leave, but Harry puts a hand on his shoulder and he settles back on his stool. Ordinarily, Harry doesn’t want him around after his paying customers start coming in, but he knows these particular men are not squeamish. At the moment they are barely awake. After taking stools in the center of the counter, two of the red-eyed men order big breakfasts—ham steak, eggs, home fries, toast, coffee—and the other two just coffee. Harry doesn’t have to ask who won. John, the lawyer, usually wins and hangs on to his winnings until he goes to Las Vegas, usually twice a year. Then Vegas usually wins. One of the noneaters pulls out the day’s racing form. The other grabs Harry’s Mohawk Republican and folds out the sports page. “What was yesterday’s number?” somebody says.

  “Four-two-one,” Harry growls.

  “I haven’t had a number in three years.”

  “So what? I haven’t been laid in pretty near that long.”

  “I can get you laid if you can get me a number,” says John, who is reputed to be a ladies’ man. He’s the only one who looks relatively fresh after the long night’s work.

  “Anybody can get laid,” another agrees.

  “Some of us prefer girls.”

  A mock fight breaks out. Wild Bill watches the men, a little alarmed at the feigned hostilities. One of the men nods a hello in his direction.

  “Oughta,” Bill says.

  “Yeah,” the man says, rolling his eyes at Harry. “Oughta.”

  “Oughta,” the rest chime in. “Oughta, Harry.”

  “Lay off.” Harry wishes now that he’d let Bill, who is grinning happily at this camaraderie, clear out when he’d wanted to. He sometimes wishes Wild Bill would just go off some place and not come back. He’s a burden at best. Still, Harry doesn’t like people making fun of him.

  “How long does it take to fry a couple eggs?” the lawyer wants to know. “They oughta be done by now.”

  “Oughta,” the others say in unison.

  The man with the sports page leans back on his stool so he can see the street outside. “Stay away from my car, you fat shit.” Officer Gaffney is studying the three illegally parked cars at the curb. A recent ordinance prohibits parking on Main Street. “If I get a ticket, I’m going temporarily insane.”

  “I’ll take your case,” John tells him.

  “Even you could win it,” somebody says.

  Harry doesn’t even bother to look. He knows Officer Gaffney and also knows that no tickets will be written until he finds out who the cars belong to. Gaffney likes to drink coffee in the diner, and he leaves Harry’s customers alone.

  The door opens and he strides in, a large man, but soft-looking. Even the boys who race their bicycles down the Main Street sidewalks are unafraid. They do wheelies behind his back as he guards the traffic light at the Four Corners and are gone again before he can turn around. Only Officer Gaffney takes himself seriously. He wears his thir
ty-eight slung lower than regulation on his right hip. “Boys,” he nods, taking a stool at the opposite end of the lunch counter from Wild Bill.

  “Oughta,” somebody says.

  Wild Bill is clearly nervous again, fidgeting on his stool and never taking his eyes off the policeman. He is made uneasy by uniforms, even those worn by familiar people. Wild Bill hasn’t had much luck with uniforms.

  “Who owns the Merc,” Officer Gaffney asks. He pours two level teaspoons of sugar into the steaming coffee Harry puts in front of him.

  “Murphy,” says the lawyer, jabbing his eggs until they run yellow. “He’ll be down in a minute if he doesn’t kill himself.”

  “You could’ve bought him breakfast, at least,” says one of the coffee-drinkers.

  “I offered. He said he wasn’t hungry.”

  “I hope his kids aren’t either. Not this week, anyhow.”

  “This month.”

  “He isn’t the only one took a bath,” says the other coffee-drinker, anxious that the absent Murphy not hog all the sympathy.

  “Yeah, but did you see the look on his face when he lost on that aces-over-boat?”

  Devouring the bleeding eggs, John chortles at the recollection. “Shit,” he says appreciatively.

  When Wild Bill slides off his stool like a scolded dog and slinks out the back, Harry doesn’t try to stop him. The men watch him go. The man reading the sports page has now folded the paper back to the front. “He must drink out of the Cayuga,” he says. Everybody but Harry laughs.

  “What the hell is ‘oughta’ supposed to mean?”

  “It means Howdy,” Harry says.

  “How do you know,” John asks. “You look it up in the Morons’ Dictionary?.”

  “It means Howdy.”

  “You can settle this, Gaff,” the lawyer says without looking up from his breakfast. “You’re his uncle.”

  Officer Gaffney goes deep purple. Though he and Wild Bill look about the same age, he is indeed the other man’s uncle. Not many people in Mohawk know Wild Bill’s last name, so he seldom has to admit to being related. Now they all know.

  “I do see a family resemblance, now that you mention it,” somebody remarks.

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