Mohawk by Richard Russo

  “No thank you, Mother.”

  There was nothing to do but get out, so Mrs. Grouse did. “We’ll say a prayer for her,” she said to her grandson. “Won’t we?”

  “Sure,” Randall agreed. “Why not.”

  Mather Grouse was indeed dozing when Anne returned, but he started awake guiltily. The television evangelist was gesticulating at him, but the sound was inaudible. To Anne her father had aged a great deal during the last year, even since October. His chest had become concave, and inactivity had added slack flesh to his middle. He looked more like a man deep in his seventies than one in his midsixties. The skin along his throat was pale and translucent.

  “Go back to sleep,” she urged softly, her mother’s version of things suddenly too real and accurate to be ignored. Her father was a sick man, and she ought not to bother him.

  “No,” he said flatly. “Sleep is overrated. Have you ever noticed how it’s always recommended to people anybody with half a brain can see need to wake up?”

  Anne smiled, and remembered him always saying things like that when she was a girl. Long before she was able to figure them out, she had admired the way they sounded and her father’s ability to say them when nobody else she knew could.

  Mather Grouse apparently appreciated this one himself. “I wonder if I read that someplace or if I thought it up myself. I should write it down, just in case it was me.”

  “It sounds like you.”

  “I don’t know. I’m suspicious.”

  Now that he was awake, she could see he was in a good mood, so she sat down. “It’s nice to talk, just the two of us. Why don’t we, ever?”

  “It isn’t permitted.”

  Anne frowned. True, she often blamed her mother in much the same manner, but her father’s explicit criticism seemed unfair. He allowed himself to be badgered by his wife a good deal, but he always let her know when he’d had enough. And once the signal was given, she stopped. “It’s not fair to blame Mother. We could if we wanted to.”

  “I guess we stopped somewhere along the line and just never started again.”

  “Let’s. Now. If we didn’t need a reason to stop, we don’t need one to resume.”

  Her father looked dubious but did not object.

  “Can we turn our friend off,” she asked, getting up from the sofa and pushing the button. The reverend’s face grew terribly thin for an instant, then disappeared, leaving father and daughter so alone that both wished him back immediately. “We’re opening a new store,” she said, trying for a simple, conversational tone.

  Mather Grouse nodded, way ahead of her. “New York again?”

  “The suburbs. Connecticut, actually. They’re going to do a lot of hiring.”

  “You’d be better off.”

  “There’s a lot more money. They want me to open the store at least. Then I can stay on if I choose. I’m wasted here.”

  “I seem to recall telling you that when you were fourteen.”

  “I guess I still have reservations. Different ones. But I’m afraid not to go. They’ve been patient, but I know how the company works. In the long run they’d rather ax you than not be able to tell you what to do.”

  “Perhaps they have your best interests at heart.”

  Suddenly Anne felt like crying. As usual, her father had refused to meet her eye. She couldn’t recall the last time he really looked at her. For all she knew, he might still see a seventeen-year-old in his mind’s eye when he listened to the sound of her voice. How startled he would be if ever he decided to look. “I guess I hoped you’d try to talk me out of it.”

  “No,” he said, still staring nostalgically at the blank television screen. “I never thought your coming back was wise.”

  Anne struggled with the sudden tightness in her chest. “It was for you—”

  “No,” he interrupted. “I know your feelings for me, and I’m … grateful. But that’s not why you came back.”

  “Then why?” She waited until it was clear that her father had no intention of speaking to that particular issue. And suddenly the silence rendered the whole conversation insupportable. In strength of will she had always been her father’s equal, but they worked their wills in different ways, Anne through action, Mather Grouse through quiet patience. In the latter she was no match. He was far more comfortable with things unsaid than she could ever be.

  “Anyway, there’s this business with Randall. I think I’m beginning to lose him. We used to be so close, but I don’t know what he’s thinking any more. I know he hates school, and I doubt he’s learning much of anything. The Connecticut schools would almost have to be an improvement.”

  “I wouldn’t worry about him too much. Nothing can ruin a good boy except growing up, and he’s going to do that no matter where you live.”

  “I hate to take him away.”

  “I’ll miss him.”

  “And me?”

  Mather Grouse paused. “Yes, I will. But I’ll feel better about you in Connecticut. People sometimes get in the habit of being loyal to a mistake. They can devote their whole lives to it.”

  This time it was Anne who looked away, afraid that her father would choose this particular moment to meet her eye. They hadn’t spoken of Dan Wood since the night fifteen years ago when she told him that she had agreed to marry a man she neither loved nor respected and that she was in love with her cousin’s fiancée. “Then you know how much I still love him.”

  “Yes. I know you.”

  “Not even you could ever convince me that loving somebody is a mistake.”

  “It is though, just the same. Because as long as you continue, you’ll be waiting for your cousin to die.”

  The harshness of this didn’t surprise her; Mather Grouse had always been capable of cruelty. She shook her head. “It’s even worse. Sometimes I wonder if I’m not waiting for him to die.”

  “Wouldn’t it be kinder to leave him alone?”

  “Yes … yes. It’s just that for a long time now I’ve forced myself to be content with less than just about anyone I know. I see him rarely and almost never talk to him, really talk to him, except in my head. I’ve never once since their marriage encouraged the slightest infidelity. All I’ve asked is to see him now and then, listen to his conversation, and know that he’s near. And I’d like someone to explain to me why I should have to give up so little.”

  “It’s like the penny on the sidewalk. It doesn’t belong to you, no matter how much you need it.”

  Anne felt less like crying now. She had needed to explain herself to someone, even badly, for a long time. Now she had bottomed out in a different realm, where tears did not apply. “Did you read that somewhere, or was it you again?”

  “Me, this time. I’m almost positive.”

  Anne took a deep breath, knowing that she was going to say it and that once said it would have to be done. “I’ll go then. I just wish I got some satisfaction out of doing the right thing. Or strength. Something.”

  “You’ve always been strong enough,” her father said. “I never know where you come by it.”

  “From you, of course.”

  Their eyes very nearly met. “No,” he said so emphatically that Anne was startled. Her father had always been a hard man to compliment: He hated lies and was embarrassed by the truth. “Your mother will be waiting,” he said before she could ask for the explanation he had no intention of giving.


  The boys inside Nathan Littler Junior High hear the heavy machinery straining up Hospital Hill during third period, and despair—certain that the demolition will be completed before lunch break. Some of the braver boys decide to cut fourth period, duck under the chain-link fence at the end of the alley and climb the slope to the rear of the hospital. They perch there in trees on the far side of the ambulance service road. The rest of the boys will join them during the midday recess, praying in the meantime that something will be left of the building, for they harbor a terrible longing for the long-anticipated destruction. T
hey want to see the steel ball crash through brick and mortar. The razing had been scheduled for Friday, but when the boys hear the groan of the heavy machinery and see the men in the yellow hard hats, they know that today’s the day.

  Their fears of missing out are ill-founded, as it turns out. The men in yellow hats have to put the machinery in place and wave blueprints at one another, pointing at the building. Sawhorse barricades are gradually erected to keep spectators at a safe distance. The town’s curious, and there are many of these, have begun to congregate. The majority of those milling around were born in the doomed building, and have been back since. The boys just released for lunch, too late to find seats in the trees out back, jostle for position along the barricades in front. All along Hospital Lane people line the upstairs and downstairs porches of the two-family dwellings fronting the old, ivy-crawling institution—at first just the owners and family, then friends, then friends of friends. When the crowded porches swell past capacity, the overflow spills out onto the porch roofs. People hang out of windows. Anticipation becomes electric, and the atmosphere up and down the lane becomes nervously festive, though the ballwrecker crouches idle between two bulldozers.

  “What’s holding things up?” everyone wants to know, and several theories, all authoritatively advanced, none correct, snake among the impatient. Most anxious are the boys from the junior high whose lunch hour is slipping away. Having so recently prayed the clock forward, they now curse their folly and weigh the considerable attractions of not returning to school against the inevitable retribution that failing to do so will entail. They band together, swearing solemn oaths that they won’t go back until the hospital is rubble, arguing that so large a number of miscreants cannot possibly be effectively punished. Not if they stick together. But as the dreaded hour of one o’clock approaches, some of the boys, their hearts heavy with disappointment and a deep sense of injustice, slink back down Hospital Hill until only those who have bragged the loudest remain, prisoners of their own bravado. Even those who cut fourth period begin to drop like overripe fruit to the ground below, and with reluctant glances over their shoulders retrace the path down to the chainlink fence at the end of the alley. Only a few realize when they hear the heavy machinery awaken precisely at the stroke of one that they have been victims of anything more sinister than cruel mischance or bad timing.

  With the majority of the schoolboys out of the way, the demolition crew begins with the most remote wing of the hospital, a section whose windows had been knocked out nearly a year before when the first ward had been evacuated to the new hospital. Unfortunately, the first swing of the ball is poorly aimed, plunging harmlessly through one of the vacant window frames on the second floor, eliciting a hoot from the crowd as the huge ball punches only a tiny hole in the red brick on its backswing. The next attempt, though, is on the mark, the black ball tearing through the brick and ivy with explosive force, blowing dust and smoke out the adjacent windows with a whoosh. An excited cheer goes up from the crowd, coinciding with a groan from the building itself, one corner of which shudders.

  In the Mohawk Grill, Harry is perplexed by what’s happened to his lunchtime crowd. The first explosion of the wrecker’s ball is still reverberating when the bakery delivery man pulls open the alley door and backs in with a handtruck full of Sunbeam bread and hamburger rolls.

  “What the hell was that?”

  “The hospital,” the delivery man says. “Wisht I could take the time. You oughta see the rubberneckers. Three deep.”

  The blood drains from Harry’s face. The other man is too busy stacking buns to notice.

  “Friday!” Harry shouts. “It’s supposed to be on Friday!”

  The man is startled by Harry’s frantic expression. “Gonna snow by then. Maybe—”

  “Jesus God,” Harry says. “Jesus God.”

  He is a large man, and while his movements are efficient in the narrow space behind the familiar lunch counter, he’s lost and sluggish in open spaces. He runs the first fifty yards to the base of Hospital Hill, but when he starts up the grade he slows like a swamp-bound dinosaur. Halfway up, he feels a tremor beneath his feet as a large section of wall collapses. All at once the air is full of dust. Harry imagines that he’s still running, but only his crazy arm jerks suggest rapid motion. Otherwise he looks like a fat comedian doing an impression of an Olympic walker, all hips and elbows. He thinks of all those childhood dreams where he was pursued by something nameless and fearsome, his legs heavy and rooted like tree trunks. Near the top of the hill he has to stop and lean against the stone wall. The air is thick with the collective groans of men, machines and foundations. Even the people on the porches and rooftops are indistinct in the dust-fouled air. Their excitement is now fueled by sound more than sight. From where Harry slumps, panting, he can see that a large portion of the old hospital is already gone. The sight pushes him upward again.

  On the other side of what remains of the building, a small knot of boys holds its ground despite the noise and dust and flying debris. Their original intention was to watch from high up in the trees, but the ground shudders each time the ball makes contact and instead they cluster at the top of the hill, prepared to retreat, if need be, down the slope. From their angle, the outline of the building looks a little jagged but not radically altered, for it is the front and side walls that are collapsing under the relentless attack of the ball. With each blast, though, dust and debris are exhaled from the windows. For a second at the moment of impact everything blurs before focusing again. The boys inexplicably find themselves rooting for the old hospital, seeing something admirable in its apparent defiance of the ball. When a section of roof collapses and the ground shakes, the air is so thick and dark they cannot see if the back wall is still standing. Gradually its form becomes visible again, though sagging badly. In a lull the air begins to clear, and what the boys see then they do not at first believe.

  On the third floor, behind one of the broken windows, stands a stock-still figure. The boys see him clearly for an instant before the building suddenly vibrates and coughs forth another whoosh of dust. Not all of the boys saw the figure and when those who did point out the spot, it’s gone.

  Those who saw the man at the window are staggered. Each boy arrives simultaneously at the same conclusion. He has seen a man die. Nothing in their lives has prepared them for this, though they have seen men die every imaginable death in the movies and on television. They stare dumbly at the window, unable to break away, unable even to look at one another. The window becomes their focus and contains them. It is one of the boys who hadn’t seen him, and therefore didn’t know where to look, who spots the man when he reappears five windows down the wing. “Hey!” the boy cries, pointing. “Hey!” they cry together, their voices absorbed by the heavy air and the now constant tremors of the hospital. When another section of roof sags, the figure is gone again, only to reappear further down the wing. Whoever it is clearly is keeping a few rooms ahead of the searching ball. From where they stand, the boys can see he is nearing the end of the wing.

  When Harry breaks through the line of wooden horses on the other side of the hospital, he is collared by Officer Gaffney, who studies him with frank astonishment, partly because he has never seen Harry any place except behind the counter of the Mohawk Grill. To the policeman his mere presence is as confusing as his wild demeanor and apparent intention of running up the walk and into the collapsing building. Grabbing Harry firmly by the shoulders, the policeman asks the question that most troubles his imagination at the moment. “Who’s watching the diner?”

  “Billy—” Harry gasps.

  Officer Gaffney nods knowingly. “We figured you had him, somehow. We figured—”

  “No!” Harry’s voice is full of exasperation. He tries to bull his way past the policeman but has left his considerable strength at the foot of Hospital Hill. Gaffney handles him easily. “In there!” Harry points.

  Officer Gaffney looks at him blankly.

  “Billy … in

  The policeman looks over his shoulder at what remains of the hospital for verification and, not finding any, simply says “No.”

  “Yes!” Harry insists.

  Officer Gaffney studies the building. When what Harry has said finally sinks in, he still stands stock-still. “Well, then he’s dead. And that’s all there is to it.”

  “Stop the wrecker!” Harry calls, nearly crying now, but his frail shout is lost in the hubbub. He begins to cry in earnest, angry with his own weakness, his inability to break free of Gaffney’s grasp. He would batter him silly if he could, but the policeman is right. If Wild Bill was inside, he’s dead. He must be. Still, none of this slakes Harry’s impotent rage. “You’re a moron, Gaff!” he says, clinging to the front of his uniform, “A God damned moron!”

  Several onlookers have been following this sideshow with interest, but suddenly they’re distracted by the shouts of people clustered on a single roof and gesticulating wildly. Everyone now cranes his neck to see what it’s all about, but the air is too thick. People all along the rooftops take up the chant, though, pointing and calling to those below; and when Officer Gaffney loosens his hold, Harry shoves past. Immediately a section of wall collapses, sucking most of what remained of the roof into the building’s open maw. As he makes his way through the rubble, other men are running, too, and one is climbing up the wrecker toward the cab. The machine’s roar is so deafening that it isn’t shut down until the operator is grabbed by the shoulder through the open window.

  Gaffney catches up to Harry about twenty yards from what once had been the hospital’s main entrance. Several others are already there, dashing toward the doorway. A few men have actually jumped down from the porch roofs across the street, and without hard hats they run skittishly among the mounds, arms above their heads as if to protect themselves from falling debris until they gain the metal canopy at the entrance, though this offers little more than symbolic protection, given the gaping rents in its sheet-metal fabric. Harry arrives near the back of the pack, but succeeds in pushing his way through to the threshhold, where he stops with the rest. All of them appear to be awaiting permission to enter. At Harry’s elbow is Officer Gaffney, a picture of frowning puzzlement.

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