Mohawk by Richard Russo


  Wild Bill Gaffney, comfortable in his coat, was seated against one of the inner walls beneath a sign warning pregnant women about the potential dangers of x-rays. In profile Harry looked like this might apply to him, at least until he gave birth to the pie tin and handed it to Wild Bill, who’d been eyeing his friend’s middle since the man came to a wheezing halt at the top of the stairs. Harry caught his breath while Wild Bill wolfed the food noisily. “Slow down,” Harry said. “You’ll be sick.”

  Wild Bill tried to slow down, but found he couldn’t. He had been waiting for the food too long and was too happy to see it. In fact, he was obviously happy in general.

  Harry studied him critically, wishing there was something he could do to make him less happy. Wild Bill had nothing to be pleased about, at least nothing Harry could see.

  Wild Bill noticed he was being studied, and grinned gravy. “Ive,” he said.

  “Yeah, he’s alive. But that’s about all.”

  Wild Bill shook his head emphatically. “Ahn,” he said before refocusing his attention on the pie tin.

  “And what?”

  Wild Bill nodded enthusiastically.

  Harry shook his head. “You’re looney, you know that? All week you’ve been saying ‘and’, but you never finish the goddamn sentence. And what?”

  Wild Bill stared stupidly until Harry, exasperated, gave up. “We got to figure a better place. They’ll level this pretty soon. And besides, it’s getting too fucking cold.”

  Wild Bill thumbed gravy around the tin and did not appear overly concerned. Harry watched him, understanding, perhaps for the first time, why some people liked to abuse him. Just then, to slap him would’ve been nice. “Ahn,” Bill said.

  Harry massaged his temples, trying hard not to lose his temper. “I know. Ahn. Always ahn. But just listen a minute, will you? Fuck ahn, and listen to me.”

  Wild Bill suddenly looked so hurt that Harry broke off. In the dark Harry couldn’t see the patches of baldness or the gauntness, and to him Wild Bill, all huddled up against the wall, looked a little like a teenager. And that, finally, was Harry’s clue. He had never considered the possibility before, and it was staggering. He sat down next to his friend, putting a hand on a bony knee. “Ahn,” Harry repeated softly this time. “Tell me, Billy, are you in love?”

  22

  Dallas lost Harry’s fifty right away. But his timing was good because Benny D’Angelo, who owned the Pontiac dealership where Dallas worked, wandered in immediately afterward. So instead of having to drop out, Dallas borrowed another fifty from the boss and settled back comfortably, convinced that his luck had changed, at least in some respects. Sober, Benny D. was a hard-headed businessman with fish hooks in his pockets; but tanked he became one of the boys. As often as not, he was one of the boys. He and Dallas had been friends since high school, and before Benny D.’s old man kicked off he had worked construction with Dallas in Albany as well as points as far flung as Poughkeepsie and Binghamton. The old man didn’t have a good thing to say about his wayward son, and everybody was surprised when he left Benny D. the dealership after swearing for years that he’d torch it first. No one was more surprised than Benny D., and his father’s gesture made a fatalist of him. “Look at us,” he was fond of observing to Dallas. “Three years ago I had shit. Now I got all I can do to piss it away. Three years ago you had shit and you still got shit. Who can figure it?”

  Dallas had to admit he couldn’t. Nor could he get a real good grip on the poker game either. He continued to lose, but whenever he got up to leave, Benny D. shoved money at him across the green felt. For a while Dallas kept a strict accounting of what he owed, but after the first two hundred he figured what the fuck. Benny D. was winning anyway, almost as fast as Dallas was losing, so nobody was getting hurt. Benny had brought along two bottles of good scotch that had circled the table, stopping meaningfully only before Benny D. and Dallas. As the evening wore on, the alcohol had a melancholy effect on Dallas, who began to talk about his brother.

  “Who cares?” one of the other players finally said. “He’s dead and buried. Play poker.”

  “Not fair,” Dallas said.

  “Right,” Bennie D. agreed. He’d been at the scotch since midafternoon and saw the whole enchilada with startling clarity. “Not fair,” he said. “Fate.” Then he passed out, his chin on his chest, still gripping fiercely what turned out to be the winning hand.

  “Three o’clock,” said one of the other men, thoroughly disgusted. “Seven hours we been at this and I’m dead even.”

  Thereupon there was a general accounting, which revealed that everyone at the table was more or less even except for Benny D., whose considerable winnings had merely subsidized Dallas. To continue seemed pointless, and the game broke up. Benny D. was left where he sat, his broad forehead now resting comfortably on the table.

  At three in the morning Main Street was so quiet that Dallas could hear the traffic light change from red to green a block away. There was nothing sadder and lonelier in the world, he decided, especially when you were all alone when it happened. What had he done to deserve such an experience? He remembered Anne and the fact that he hadn’t even called to say he wasn’t coming. Maybe that was it. He should’ve called, but it was too late now and besides, the traffic light had already paid him back. He never had been welcome at the Grouse home, not really. You could tell when you were really welcome, and the only place he’d ever felt it was at his brother’s. His innocent brother, who never got drunk, never played poker, never catted around, never in his life caught a dose. Dead. And now Dallas had no place in the world where he was ever really welcome.

  At the Four Corners Dallas headed north toward the cemetery, feeling sorry for the brother buried there and even sorrier for himself. By rights he should be the one in the ground, if only because nobody would miss him. Certainly not his ex-wife and probably not his son, who never said anything at all. Even the fast friendships of his youth had slipped away. If he ever saw Dan Wood, it was by accident. After he and Diana were married, he made all that money and moved into the house up on Kings Road. And they were friends with Anne, so to hell with them, Dallas figured. Yes, Dan had it rough, a lot of people did. Maybe not as rough as himself, but pretty damn rough just the same. Even as he arrived at this conclusion, Dallas was aware that he was posturing for his own benefit, something he did only when he was drinking. In the morning he’d be at a loss to discover much wrong with his life, assuming he still had his teeth. But for some reason, these periods of melancholy were important to him, and he rode them out the way some people did migraines.

  The cemetery was closed, the grounds surrounded by a high iron fence studded with spikes along the top. Dallas scrambled over with the nimbleness of a reckless drunk. Though when he felt one of the cold iron spikes graze his groin, he came to an important decision. He would end his meaningless existence and join his brother in the grave. If there was no justice, no God to insure that the innocent and the good were not spirited away while the guilty lingered, then he’d show them justice himself. That very night, before he had a chance to sober up and remember he didn’t want to die.

  David’s grave was in the new section, but Dallas had climbed the fence at the other end, which meant he’d have to travel from past to present. The path in the old part wound through tall oaks that thrust upward, obscuring the stars, out of the hummocks. The night was clear now and the wind had finally died down. The gravestones angled crazily, two-centuries old, the result of deep restlessness below. Dallas had no desire to read what they said. That was the sort of thing Anne would do. They might have been interesting if the people beneath had done the writing, but the living had nothing worthwhile to say about the dead. As Dallas approached the present, the stones sat straighter and the stars began to peek through the bare branches of the smaller trees. Finally the stones disappeared altogether, victims of changing custom. Lying flat, they were invisible from the path.

  Dallas knew where his brother’s was,
though, and walked right up to it, the emotion thickening in his throat. There was a fresh bouquet of flowers, which meant that Loraine had visited, probably that afternoon. They had a dusky smell, a little like Loraine herself. I’d still be welcome in my brother’s house, Dallas thought. Even at this time of night, I wouldn’t get turned away. This thought was quickly followed by two others—that it was wrong for any man to kill himself when there was a chance he might be welcome somewhere and that a man had obligations toward his brother’s wife, obligations that might just improve his mood. Dallas had promised his brother to look after her and the child. How could he even think of killing himself when David’s house needed so much work, and his sister-in-law a job? He hadn’t really planned to do himself in, but to realize that he wasn’t morally obligated to came as a relief.

  The first thing was to go and tell Loraine to rest easy. He’d fix the plumbing, rewire the house, insulate the upstairs, give the whole place a fresh coat of paint. Dallas accomplished all of this in his mind as he hurried back along the path and scrambled over the fence. Since it was at least a mile to his brother’s place, he began to jog. Then he thought of an even better plan and reversed his direction. Fifteen minutes later he arrived at the Grouse home, winded and perspiring, despite the cold. His breath billowed before him as he jogged in place, figuring. Some crushed rock was scattered along the perimeter of the porch, and Dallas grabbed a handful that rattled very loudly against his ex-wife’s upstairs window. In a moment, a light went on and Anne appeared. At the sight of her, Dallas quailed a little. Despite his inner assurance that he was at this very moment turning his life around and that in time she’d come to understand the moment’s significance, her beauty was still terrifying, and he felt afraid, the way he had when they were married, and even after. When she threw up the window, part of the pane of glass he had cracked with the barrage of gravel fell the two stories and shattered in the drive. “I’m sorry—” he began, startled by the strange sound of his own voice.

  “Dinner was yesterday, Dallas. Go away.”

  The best thing was to ignore her. “I’ve got everything worked out,” he said excitedly. “I’ll start acting right. Starting today. Right now.”

  “Have you been reading Dickens?”

  Definitely better to ignore her. Her remarks never made any sense. “Could you give Loraine a job?”

  “Loraine who?”

  “Sister-in-law, who’d you think?”

  “Are you drunk?”

  “Exactly. But would you?”

  “Dallas—”

  “Please. I won’t bother you again. Ever.”

  “That’s ridiculous. Of course you will. You bother everyone.”

  “If she came to the store, could you find something?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe.”

  “Great,” Dallas turned to go. “Go’night.”

  His ex-wife’s voice followed him. “You disappointed your son today.”

  Dallas shook his head. “No. He doesn’t care ’bout me. Wish he did.”

  “Maybe he’d like the new you better.”

  Dallas hadn’t considered this, and was cheered even more.

  “In the meantime, you owe my father a new window. Should he put it on your tab?”

  “Yes. I mean, I owe one. You’ll never get another husband, you know.”

  “Thanks for the advice.” The window slammed shut, the rest of the broken glass falling around him before the light went out.

  The remainder of the broken glass fell around him. Dallas was still excited, but the euphoria of alcohol was beginning to wear off so he alternated jogging and walking all the way to Loraine’s. Despite the time, now nearly four in the morning, a light was on in the living room. Actually, it was just the television, all snow. Loraine answered the door right away and didn’t seem at all surprised. “Come in,” she said. “I guess Thanksgiving lasted a little longer than I planned.”

  For a moment Dallas took her literally. Her hair was fixed and she was dressed in a ruffled blouse, skirt and heels. She was a little wobbly. But there was no one else there and just the one glass beside the bottle on the old, ringed coffee table. All this he ignored. “I’ve got everything figured,” he said.

  “Then keep it to yourself,” Loraine said. “I’m still figuring. Stuck at the beginning. Don’t take all the fun out of it.”

  Did it always have to be this way with women, Dallas wondered. Didn’t they ever want to listen? Did they always have to say things nobody could make any sense out of? “Just let me—” he began.

  But he didn’t get any farther. Loraine did the strangest thing any strange woman had ever done to him. Instead of letting him help her, instead of letting him tell her about it, she slapped him in the face. Hard, too, so hard it cleared his head.

  “I feel like hell, Dallas. Can’t you see I feel like hell?”

  “I wanted to give you some good news,” Dallas said weakly, now unsure that any news of his was likely to be good. Anne had been right. It was his destiny to bother people. If he’d learned anything in all the years, he should have learned to pay attention to Anne when she said things like that.

  “I don’t want any part of good news,” she said. “I want to feel like hell. Can’t you understand?”

  “Yes.”

  “You’re just saying that. You aren’t smart enough to feel like hell yourself, or even understand when somebody else does.”

  This struck Dallas as unfair, especially in view of the fact that he himself had been feeling like hell so recently. Apropos of feeling miserable, he said “I saw the flowers—” but then, for a moment, thought Loraine was going to hit him again.

  “Just shut up,” she said quietly. “For once in your stupid life, don’t be stupid. David adored you, but he was right. About most things you’re dumb as hell.”

  Which sounded like the sort of thing Anne would say, and Dallas guessed Loraine was probably right. But he was confused, just the same. Not by what she said, but the way she said it, her voice soft and sad. He didn’t understand until she came close. “Don’t be dumb for once,” she said, her breath musky like the flowers on her husband’s grave. “Just be kind.”

  He was too surprised and scared to kiss back when she kissed him. But he knew that he wasn’t supposed to step away. He might not be smart, but he was certain of that much. As usual, he thought, just when I’ve got everything figured, it turns out I had it all wrong. Like cards, there was always something you didn’t count on. Usually something bad. Good things you didn’t count on were something new. If this was a good thing. The more she kissed him, the more he wondered if it might just be. Anyway, it didn’t mean he couldn’t paint the house and fix the plumbing if he wanted to. He would tell her about his plans later. “Scrooge!” he thought to himself suddenly, as the drift of his ex-wife’s earlier remark became clear. Catching on, even belatedly, was pleasant.

  23

  Sunday morning after Thanksgiving, Anne Grouse informed her mother that she would not be going to church. “Why not?” Mrs. Grouse said. When her daughter made a point of not answering, Mrs. Grouse retreated, rhetorically, half a step. “I mean, if you’re ill—”

  “I know what you meant, Mother. I’m not ill. I’ll drive you and Randall.”

  “No you won’t. You’ll go right back to your warm bed if you—”

  “It’s forty degrees out.”

  “Pooh. A few short blocks.”

  As they waltzed around the subject a little longer, Mrs. Grouse refused to surrender the notion that her daughter was ill, at least for the sake of public discussion. Privately, she knew better. Her daughter had been an infidel always. She went to services only for the benefit of the boy, who was beginning, Mrs. Grouse feared, to show many of the disturbing traits her daughter had manifested at the same age. More than once he had observed that the sermon made no sense. Mrs. Grouse was enormously fond of her grandson, but she was of the opinion that he was getting too big for his britches, and his mother rema
ined living testimony to what could happen when such impulses were not nipped.

  The more she thought about her daughter’s sudden refusal to attend services, the more certain she was that Anne intended to corner her father and broach some proscribed subject. Mrs. Grouse had redoubled her vigilance of late, always guarding against upset. She took special care to insure that Anne was never left alone with Mather Grouse, lest she harp on the subject of the oxygen tank or introduce another one conducive to excessive enthusiasm on her husband’s part. This latest tactic on Anne’s part was unfair, for it invited Mrs. Grouse to shunt her Christian duty in order to protect her home.

  In the car she smoothed her white gloves savagely and tilted her jaw in a fashion that suggested life’s unfairness and a good deal more. “Your father had another bad night,” she said when Anne slowed down. The traffic always bottled up in front of the church while elderly parishioners were extracted from cars and bundled across the street. “Neither of us had a wink of sleep.”

  Anne put the car in neutral to wait for an old woman who, suddenly disoriented, darted off in the wrong direction, was retrieved, then pointed in the right.

  “The fourth night in a row,” her mother continued. “Maybe he’ll be able to doze while we’re away.”

  Anne murmured in agreement, but Mrs. Grouse knew nothing was promissory in it.

  “It’s his time alone …” she ventured. By now they were at the crosswalk. Randall got out and held the door for her, but Mrs. Grouse lingered. Far back in the line of cars, someone honked.

  “I’ll pick you up in an hour,” Anne said.

  “Maybe we’ll just walk.”

  “I’ll pick you up.”

  “Why not come in. You’re right here and all—”

 
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