Mohawk by Richard Russo

  “That’s not Billy!” Harry says after studying the vaguely familiar boy who stands before them in the once blue-carpeted reception area, looking a little embarrassed amid a pile of mortar, brick and broken glass, utterly uninjured. “That’s not Billy. That’s some goddamn kid!”


  On the corner of Sixth and Broad in Mohawk stood Greenie’s Tavern, which had the sole distinction of being the gin mill closest to the largest of the Mohawk tanneries. A low-ceilinged building, long ago a hand-laundry, it now reeked of stale beer and provided a bathroom whose door could never be induced to close properly. The obligatory bowling machine stood against one wall, its lights dancing seductively even when the machine wasn’t in use. Once a quarter was slipped into its slot, the plastic pins clattered down from above and quivered nervously in anticipation of the sliding puck, which only appeared to strike them.

  The man who owned Greenie’s was not Greenie. Neither were any of the several most recent owners, though there was probably a Greenie somewhere in the establishment’s eccentric past. No doubt he had drawn five hundred or a thousand kegs of draft, then died or escaped to spend the money he’d made, fading completely from the collective memory, leaving behind only the neon script that subsequent owners never felt sufficiently motivated to replace.

  Greenie’s seldom did any real business, except for roughly one hour a day. During that hour it did the best business in town. At a few minutes before five, men from the tannery and surrounding glove shops began to drop in for a quick schooner on the way home to dinner. Between five and six, the bartender didn’t bother to turn off the tap, and just ran his tapered glasses beneath the wide open spigot.

  The second busiest man in Greenie’s was Untemeyer, the bookie, who went through three tablets of paper slips, one hundred sheets each, looking up from his task only long enough to see whose name to write down next. Not that the slips were necessary. Untemeyer was acknowledged to have one of the finest memories in the county, and those who owed him money either steered clear or paid up, slips or no slips. He hadn’t forgotten a wager in forty years, and sooner or later he got his money, because Mohawk was a small place and within its confines he was well traveled. Untemeyer was a workingman’s bookie who took no heavy action, but no wager was too small and for this reason he was a favorite among men who often lacked the traditional two-dollar bet. Yet, these small wagers added up and had been doing so for a long time. A mugger, had there been one in Mohawk, could have done far worse than to find Untemeyer when he left Greenie’s at six-thirty. Of course only a stranger could’ve robbed him, because he knew everyone else. But a stranger wouldn’t have known enough to, for only a mind reader could’ve guessed Untemeyer had anything worth taking. He always wore the same shabby black alpaca suit, liberally dusted with cigar ash. Despite his being a public figure, only a very few men knew where he lived. Several women had known, once upon a time, but they were all married now, or dead or both. With a bookie, all you had to know was where to find him, and Untemeyer’s movements were precise. If ever he happened not to be at the end of Greenie’s bar at five, you could find him at the morgue.

  The only visible sign of wealth Untemeyer allowed himself was a large diamond ring set in gold. It hadn’t been off his thumblike ring finger in thirty years. Dallas Younger, one of Untemeyer’s better customers, liked to tease him about it. “Don’t you worry about that ring, Bill,” Dallas would whisper. “When you die, I’ll be right there with a hacksaw.” Then he’d hold up his own ring finger to illustrate. “Right here at the joint.” The otherwise unflappable Untemeyer—no doubt visualizing Dallas, saw in hand, grinning down at his corpse—always came unglued at this comic threat. “If I could get it off, I’d give it to you right now, you son-of-a-bitch. Get away from me,” he’d growl. “I’ll piss on your grave, anyway. See if I don’t.”

  He straddled his corner stool and wrote out his slips, tearing them off one after the other until he had accumulated an impressive pile of coins and bills. In the bulging jacket pockets of his black alpaca suit, he carried coin wrappers.

  Two weeks before Christmas there was a warm spell, and perhaps it was the unseasonable weather that produced at Greenie’s an unusual customer. At five forty-five most of the men in the bar were finishing their third quick one and fishing around in their trouser pockets to see if they had money to pay for another. With this important business to occupy their minds, most didn’t notice when a quietly well-dressed man in his sixties entered, squinting in the dark, smoke-filled interior, and took a recently vacated seat at the opposite end of the bar from Untemeyer. Apparently unwilling to shout his order, he sat for some minutes unattended. Most of Greenie’s clientele were too young to know who he was, or how unusual the fact of his being there. They were of another generation and couldn’t know that for over thirty years this man had gotten off work with all the others and walked past Greenie’s open door, the raucous laughter of his fellow workers spilling out into the street along with the clacking of the bowling machine and the smell of stale beer and urinal cakes. This man had never once entered. Tonight only a handful of this older man’s generation was present, and none immediately recognized Mather Grouse, their old coworker who, once he was finally served, drained half the beer before setting the glass back on the counter.

  Mather Grouse very much liked the taste of beer, though he almost never drank it. Occasionally, when he was a younger man and still working in the shops, he would pick up a six-pack of ale at the market on his way home from work, and then after dinner—there was never a spare moment before—he would drink a bottle very slowly while he watched the news. He had stopped the practice one winter when there wasn’t money for beer and never started up again, having found another use for the extra money about that time. Mrs. Grouse didn’t object to her husband drinking a beer with the news, but she disliked having to rearrange their small refrigerator to accomodate the bottles, and Mather Grouse was never permitted to put in the whole sixpack at once. The best he could hope for was two bottles in the door rack, where Mrs. Grouse would lay them flat among the condiments, convinced they would tumble out onto the floor if they were set upright, though anyone could see by examining the racks that this was a geometric impossibility. In the door the beers never got as cold as Mather Grouse liked them. Greenie’s beer was very cold, and Mather Grouse drained the remainder of his glass with satisfaction, then ordered another. On the way home he would stop and buy beer, and when he got there he’d make Mrs. Grouse stand all six bottles upright in the back of the refrigerator. Never before had he realized that this issue was worth a fight, but there were going to be other changes as well.

  Almost contentedly Mather Grouse surveyed Greenie’s. In his present mood, the dark, dingy bar seemed exactly the sort of place it ought to be, and for some reason the odor of stale urinal cakes was not nearly as nauseating as he had often thought when passing by on the sidewalk. It was simply the smell of humankind, and after all, it was pointless to disapprove. Greenie’s served very cold beer, that was the main point. Mather Grouse decided that from now on he would drink cold beer whenever he felt like it. At the moment he was in a rare period of ascendency as regards his wife. Normally he would’ve considered suicidal a contest of wills with that good woman. Granted, she gave ground once the battle lines were drawn, but she always had a way of gaining that ground back again, and a little more, in the long haul of days, months, years. However long it took. You could win a skirmish here or there, but then you paid.

  This evening Mather Grouse had simply informed her that he was going out for a beer, and Mrs. Grouse, who had not lived forty-odd years with him without being a shrewd judge of his moods, especially those rare ones when he would not be trifled with, registered no formal objection. But her lips drew together until they were a thin white scar. Nevertheless, Mather Grouse felt confident that on this occasion he would successfully prevent her from exacting slow retribution. If he had never been able to prevent it before, never mind. She was a wo
man, and mortal. All his life he had known men who beat their wives just to get their attention. Maybe it was a little late to start beating Mrs. Grouse, but he thought there might be some middle ground between physical abuse and unmanly acquiesence. Though he wasn’t sure, there just ought to be. The first step in searching it out was to start thinking independently again. Casting about for something wild and independent to do, he noticed Untemeyer at the other end of the bar. Mather Grouse knew him, of course. When he was younger, the bookie had made the rounds of all the shops. Now the mountain came to Mohammed, as Untemeyer was fond of saying.

  The majority of his business concluded, Untemeyer was making neat stacks of his dollar bills and paper slips, after which he would thumb quarters into the paper coin rolls. Everyone knew that he didn’t appreciate taking further action after six, after he began tubing paper with rubber bands. “Yeah!” he barked whenever he sensed a laggard customer at his elbow. He never bothered to look up.

  “I wish to play a number,” Mather Grouse said.

  The voice, together with the formal phrasing, jolted him, and he peered up over the rims of his owl-eyed glasses. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

  “Perhaps not,” said Mather Grouse.

  “Mather Grouse.”

  “What is a good number?”

  “602,” Untemeyer told him honestly. He himself had never played a number, but had he been a betting man he’d often thought he’d play 602. Actually, this was the first time in forty years that anyone had asked his advice. The men and women of Mohawk were fiercely loyal to the numbers they selected. They played the last three digits of their license plates, the birthdates of their children and lovers, the death dates of local suicides. They didn’t need Untemeyer to tell them what to play, and Untemeyer would not have presumed. “How much?”

  Mather Grouse put a crisp ten-dollar bill on the bar. Untemeyer blinked. “Are you all right?”

  “Perfectly,” Mather Grouse said. In fact, doing something this abjectly foolish made him feel wonderful. It wouldn’t do to make a habit of it, but the novelty was delightful. “Thanks so much for asking.”

  Greenie’s was now beginning to thin out, and on the way back to his stool Mather Grouse spied Rory Gaffney at the bowling machine, surrounded by a small group of men. The sight of him caused Mather Grouse a fleeting moment of panic, although his coming to Greenie’s in the first place had much to do with Rory Gaffney. Hadn’t he lain awake half the night planning and rehearsing the meeting? Why the old panic, then? Now of all times, after he’d convinced himself that such feelings belonged to the past. Why the paralysis, the sudden impulse to slink out before he was noticed? Mather Grouse gathered all his self-control to keep from throwing the remainder of his money on the bar and bolting for the street.

  Instead, he ordered another beer and again quickly drained half. The beer had a warming effect, and Mather Grouse felt something of his former determination restored. He was happy to feel it, too. The moment of panic had been senseless but real. He had felt it before, many times, and not always occasioned by Rory Gaffney. And perhaps it was foolish to force a confrontation.

  The boy was responsible. Facing annihilation, he had entered the collapsing building even as the very roof and walls were giving way, and in so doing had saved the life of the very man who had not been out of Mather Grouse’s thoughts for a single day for over fifteen years, and who had made him a virtual prisoner in his own home. In a single stroke the boy had redeemed his grandfather, saved his life more surely than Anne had done the afternoon he had collapsed after seeing the ragged bum urinating on the lawn and recognized in the man’s decrepit state and shameless behavior another man entirely.

  Had it not been for his daughter, Mather Grouse would have died that afternoon. But she hadn’t been able to bring him all the way back to life, not the way the boy did. Think of it! Mather Grouse had said to himself over and over. Just think of it. No man could have done it. Only a boy. But just the same. The boy calmly stepping through the chaos, hearing behind him the shouts of the other boys who had spied the figure at the window. Think of him leaving the others behind, gauging it all correctly, intuitively, knowing there wasn’t time to go back down the slope, around the school and back up Hospital Hill. Gauging correctly that even if there had been time, he wouldn’t have been able to make anyone believe him. Think of it: calmly climbing through the rubble, in through one of the broken windows on the ground floor, bricks and wiring and wood falling all around, the walls shuddering under the impact of the ball, the air too thick to breathe, at least not deeply enough to do any good. And then, once inside, even worse: the mayhem, the groaning intensified, and think of it, going on, never guessing that it was two lives he was saving, the second his own grandfather’s, as if Mather Grouse had been there in the building beside William Gaffney, the two of them fleeing room to room, just ahead of the massive ball.

  Surely if the boy could do that, Mather Grouse could follow through and say what he should’ve said over fifteen years ago. Rory Gaffney, when you and I are finished with this conversation, you will never speak to me again. If we meet on the street, you will pretend you do not know me. You will never again address a member of my family. You will neither come to my home, nor drive past my house in your car. If you should ever do any of these things, if you should ever acknowledge that we are acquainted by so much as a nod of the head, then by God I will do what I should have done so long ago, and then you will get what you deserve. Yes, deserve.

  Mather Grouse had entered Greenie’s confident that he would deliver just such an ultimatum, and that once this was done he would again be a fully vested member of the human race. But somehow the sight of the man—encircled by his cronies, all of them in turn leaning forward over the bowling machine, nudging it, caressing it, cajoling it—had disheartened him. Between himself and the others there had always been a gulf, and he was never sure that he wanted to bridge it. Was this not an unholy brotherhood founded on ignorance, self-satisfaction, fear and promiscuity. You cover mine, I’ll cover yours. If he stood against Rory Gaffney, he would have to stand against all of them, for Rory Gaffney was all of them, magnified, or so he seemed to Mather Grouse. Nor was that the whole story. The effect Rory Gaffney had on Mather Grouse, the very real panic Mather always felt when near him, could not have resulted from anything so abstract. Mather Grouse’s loathing was instinctive, a combination of fear and revulsion that like nausea came over him in waves. Gaffney always seemed obscene, and he often reminded Mather Grouse of an incident early in his childhood when a fat ten-year-old had called him into an alley between houses and exposed himself. What the young Mather Grouse had felt—he still remembered vividly the complex emotion—was anger and revulsion at the sight of the boy’s angry red member, as well as sinking sympathy, for the boy was obese and vile. For this reason, he remembered thinking, God invented hell, not to punish but to separate the clean from the unclean.

  Mather Grouse was snapped from this reverie by the sound of his own name, spoken close-by, and he started visibly. The man who had spoken was not the one he feared, but another, roughly Mather Grouse’s age, dressed shabbily except for a cheap new lemon-yellow windbreaker. The man was no more than five feet tall, and everything he wore appeared at least one size too large. He was very drunk. “It is you, Mather Grouse,” the little man said with boozy enthusiasm. “I knew it. Don’t you remember me?”

  Once he studied the man, Mather Grouse was surprised to discover he did. “Why, yes, Mr. Anadio. I do.”

  The little man was greatly pleased. “We was just talking about you,” he said. “Wasn’t that your daughter’s boy out there at the old hospital?”

  “Yes,” Mather Grouse said. “My grandson.”

  The mere mention of the boy instantly restored Mather Grouse. It made the boy real. Both the grandson and the act of heroism had seemed to pale in the dank light of Greenie’s, as if here they might not apply. Rory Gaffney, still hunched over the bowling machine, twirling the puck wi
th doughy fingers, seemed far more tangible. Mather Grouse watched him, forgetful of the man at his elbow. It was the tenth frame and Rory Gaffney calmly rolled a strike to win the game. Money exchanged hands. Even from across the room it was plain that Rory Gaffney had faulted by releasing the puck well over the red line. But no one objected, probably because they all routinely faulted. A strange way to play, it seemed, and Mather Grouse’s heart sank.

  “Of course you heard my news.” Mr. Anadio was saying.

  Mather Grouse admitted he hadn’t.

  “Oh,” he said. “I’m dying, Mather.” He said it almost cheerfully, as if delighted to find someone at this late date who hadn’t already heard from somebody else. “Cancer,” Mr. Anadio explained. “Like all the rest. Cancer and leukemia, that’s us, Mather.”

  He had been paying so little attention that it took a minute for Mr. Anadio’s words to register. And when they finally did, Mather Grouse didn’t know what to say.

  “They killed us, Mather. All them years. They just plain killed us, and I told ’em so, too. Young Ralph Tucker and Mike Littler both, right to their face. Ten times the national average. It was right in the Republican. Ten times the average, but the bastards still won’t admit they done it. Killed us, but they won’t admit it.” Tears were welling up in his eyes. “They wouldn’t admit it if it was a thousand times the average. A million. Not them bastards.”

  Suddenly Rory Gaffney was standing with them. Mather Grouse didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know it. When Gaffney’s soothing voice interrupted, he was prepared.

  “You made your living in those shops, Mr. Anadio,” he said mildly. “Who else would’ve paid a man like you? Men like all of us.”

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