Mohawk by Richard Russo


  To make matters worse, that night Mather Grouse dreamt about his daughter in a way that left him so angry and ashamed that he got up from bed and went into the bathroom where he cried quietly in the dark until he regained his composure. So it is me, too, he thought. In spirit I was among them today. Hanging out the window, shouting lewd, indecent things. I am no different. Neither beauty nor innocence nor the best of intentions can alter that which has always been.

  So Mather Grouse thought in the dark. And then he thought, Maybe it isn’t true. She still is the same. Still innocent. And if I were to go into her room, I would find the same girl that I have tucked in every night since she was an infant. And if I were to do it now, I could banish for good the ugliness of my thoughts. Mather Grouse went to the door of his daughter’s bedroom, but did not enter. What if she were awake? he thought. What if she suspected his dream? It was as if father and daughter had grown up at the same moment.

  27

  At two in the morning Mohawk is chilled and asleep. In the whole town not one person is abroad in the brittle night air. If anyone were awake indoors, he might detect the first snow of the winter gently dusting the town. By morning it will have disappeared, or remain only as frozen ice crystals on the sidewalks, and the small boys hoping to make a dollar before Christmas will be disappointed.

  The traffic light at the Four Corners clicks green, then yellow, then red. No car has passed beneath it in half an hour, and no one would be inconvenienced if the light didn’t change until five-thirty when the milk trucks begin their rounds. On weekdays no policemen are on duty once the bars close, though one sleeps at the switchboard in the station in case there’s a call. In Mohawk there is no all-night diner or all-night anything. Harry tried to keep the Grill open for a while, but it was more trouble than it was worth. The nightman treated the business as if it were his own—which is to say, he kept the profits. In midweek there isn’t even a poker game upstairs.

  In front of the Grouse home on Mountain sits a large moving van. The driver had pulled in late that afternoon and left it parked there so they could get an early start in the morning. To load the furniture and boxes from the upstairs flat won’t take long. The truck is already three-quarters full with the belongings of a Rochester family moving into a four-bedroom in the Stamford area. Anne Grouse can see the top of the truck from where she sits, surrounded by boxes, on the sofa. Her bed and frame are disassembled, and if she sleeps tonight, it will be right where she’s sitting. Her intention was to work through the night, but Mrs. Grouse and Randall have pitched in and everything’s ahead of schedule, leaving her with nothing to do but battle the vague presentiment that going away amounts to running away. Still, she is as committed as a person can be, having signed agreements, made promises, paid money.

  The house is so still that when the refrigerator clicks on, she’s startled. She decides to look in on Randall, not because he needs looking in on but because she needs to look in. The move will be good for him, at least, especially now that he has been formally elevated to hero status with his picture in the Mohawk Republican and three civic groups fighting over dates to honor him in official ceremonies. He has dealt with all of this better than she herself has. But then Randall has always been contemptuous of the opinions of others, even when that opinion happened to be flattering. He is a strange boy. Just when she’s convinced that he’s going to pass through life aloof, a wry critic, he risks his life for a perfect stranger. And Billy Gaffney, of all people. The symmetry is so perfect as to suggest there might be a Supreme Architect after all, or something.

  Billy Gaffney—she hadn’t thought of him in years. For the longest time after her father had put his foot down about him, Billy had followed her home from school, pretending he had some legitimate reason for standing on the corner, watching the house. Perhaps he was awaiting another surge of courage, or for the sense of humiliation to diminish, or to explain or apologize for the men in the shop. He continued to haunt the neighborhood even after she and Dallas started dating. Then, suddenly, he wasn’t around any more. She had known that he was in love with her, but she was discovering some things about love herself at the time—like the fact that it was just as easy to fall out of it as into it, and with as little reason. Dallas didn’t require much time to teach her that. She assumed that Billy Gaffney had made a parallel discovery.

  According to the newspaper, he’d been living in the abandoned hospital. Well, he wouldn’t have to any more. After Randall told his story about what had really happened in the alley the day the boy was injured, charges against Wild Bill were dropped. Unfortunately public sentiment still ran against him, and he was packed off to Utica for observation until his fate, which had already been decided, could be formally ratified. The fact that a good boy had very nearly been injured on Wild Bill’s behalf proved, if further proof was needed, that Wild Bill was at the very least a public nuisance. When she heard, Anne was furious. If unfortunates like Billy Gaffney were summarily institutionalized, she told her father, then half of Mohawk County could well end up behind bars. Mather Grouse agreed, having always believed that half of Mohawk County belonged behind bars.

  Randall rolls over in bed but does not wake up. Asleep he is beginning to look more like a man than a boy, and it occurs to Anne that youth must have something to do with movement. Perhaps this explains why it’s so difficult to judge someone’s age from a photograph. She has a recent snapshot of Dan Wood, asleep by the pool in his back yard, one arm draped over his head, that makes him look twenty. He had dozed that way, briefly, some fifteen years ago in a motel room in Albany. She had watched him sleep, wanting to run her fingers through his damp hair, but not wanting to wake him. Since then, he has always been there to touch. Now, as then, she has refrained.

  Outside, the lazy snow forms a halo around the street lamp. There is a stirring sound below, and Anne wonders if her father is awake. He has begged off helping with the packing, probably because it meant something like goodbye. Anne turns out the light and, after undressing, pulls a quilt over her on the sofa. Two-thirty. Mid-December. Very nearly the longest night of the year.

  Downstairs, Mrs. Grouse rolls over in bed and opens her eyes. The bedside clock says two-thirty. She sees that Mather Grouse’s bed is empty, the covers thrown back. No doubt he has gone to the bathroom. Mrs. Grouse resolves to remain awake until the toilet flushes, a comforting sound. She doesn’t get up to check on her husband, because it angers him to be checked on, especially at night, on the toilet, where he claims any man ought have a little peace. Sometimes he just sits there in the dark, behavior which frightens Mrs. Grouse, though she doesn’t know precisely why. “What do I need a light for?” he complains when questioned. “I know what I’m doing. It’s not a complicated process.” He can be a thoroughly hateful man.

  But Mather Grouse is not in the bathroom. He is in the living room in his favorite chair, his head slumped forward. When a car goes by, its headlights send patterns around the room, waving over his face and torso, though he doesn’t react. Mather Grouse is not thinking about what has troubled him so deeply of late. Nor is he thinking about the afternoon over fifteen years ago when something inside him snapped. Sitting in that very chair, from which he could see the street outside. Young Billy Gaffney was there, just as he had been there for nearly a month, watching patiently, just as Mather Grouse watched him, though the boy had no idea. And as he sat there, Mather Grouse heard afresh the hooting and jeering, and saw again the men dangling out of windows. The boy was not to blame, of course. No longer even an issue, really, since his daughter was seeing another boy now. No reason, but the Gaffney boy weighed on Mather Grouse. That way he had of just standing there, utterly relentless, as if he knew that time was on his side, as if his private oracle had counseled patience. It was not a moonstruck boy that Mather Grouse saw standing there, but rather the personification of his own straight-jacketed existence. Mohawk was waiting there for her, confident that sooner or later she would come out and offer her embrace
. And sometimes Mather Grouse imagined that it wasn’t Bill Gaffney at all, but his father, a goatlike presence, come to claim her. And so something inside Mather Grouse snapped and he went crazy, if only for the time it took to make a phone call. Almost before he set the receiver down, Rory Gaffney pulled up in his ramshackle old car and shoved the boy roughly inside. Twice more the boy appeared, and twice more Mather Grouse had used the telephone, each time making the threat more explicit. Then the boy missed the last week of school before summer vacation, and for a month no one saw any of the family. Gaffney’s wife had disappeared, and some said he’d gone after her. Then he walked back into the shop, and everyone began to say he was the most unfortunate man who’d ever lived. Not only had his wife managed to stay missing, but his son had been in an accident and, well, damaged. There was a brief flap, because some people wanted to know more. Rory Gaffney himself appeared shaken for a while, but before long he was his old self again. One day he had the opportunity to say a word to Mather Grouse, privately. “You don’t have to worry,” he whispered. “Not about my poor boy.” There was complicity and friendship in his manner as well as a distilled hatred that took Mather Grouse’s breath away.

  But Mather Grouse is not thinking of these things, as he has been, increasingly, since his afternoon at Greenie’s. Rory Gaffney’s whispered confidences and innuendos do not turn like a knife in his heart as they have for the last fifteen years. Nor is he thinking any more about the possibility of redemption, of getting one good, long, cleansing breath, deep into his lungs, burning away with its icy purity the yellow bile that has collected there. He is having no trouble breathing. His chest neither rises nor falls.

  The car going by awakens Mrs. Grouse again, and seeing that her husband has not returned to bed, she sits up and works her feet into the slippers at the foot of the bed. When she finds Mather Grouse in his chair, she isn’t surprised, for he often sits there at night when he cannot sleep.

  “Dear?” she inquires.

  Mather Grouse does not respond.

  “Dear?”

  When she touches his hand, it is cold, and Mrs. Grouse steps back quickly, fear registering in her expression. Luckily, she has encountered fear before and quickly banishes it. For a moment she is immobile, but then she takes the heavy quilt from the sofa and covers him, careful this time not to touch his cold flesh. “There,” she says, her voice rather louder than she intended. “Warm.”

  Mrs. Grouse returns to the bedroom, but not to sleep. She is a patient woman. Morning will come.

  28

  There were problems from the start, especially finding pallbearers. Mather Grouse had no relatives outside the immediate family, and Anne didn’t realize how small the circle of his acquaintance was until she began to call the few names she and her mother were able to recall from his working days. Randall would be a bearer, of course, and Dr. Walters had called immediately to offer. But from there it wasn’t easy. Dallas called and asked if there was anything he could do, but she put him on hold. He often forgot important engagements, and besides, more than once he had borrowed money from her father and not repaid it. After several phone calls to people she didn’t know and who didn’t know her, she became so depressed that she called the Woods. Blessedly, Dan answered. He and her father never had much good to say about each other, but under the circumstances Anne knew that she could count on him to be kind. Yet, it annoyed her when she confessed her predicament that Dan professed no surprise. What he did offer, as usual, was help, suggesting a nephew, a few years older than Randall, who owed him a favor. “Did he know my father?” Anne said.

  “I haven’t any idea. Is that the issue?”

  “No … you’re right.”

  “He’ll be on time, and he’ll wear a suit. Wish I could do the deed myself, kid.”

  Cheered by this qualified success, she went back to her list and succeeded in enlisting two more. One was an old Italian by the name of Maroni, who was clearly delighted. “I wanna say wonna thing about you poppa,” he told her over the phone. “He was gooda man. Everybody make a mistake. I am too.”

  That left them one bearer short and when Dallas called back a second time, Anne relented. He not only offered himself but a couple of his cronies. “I know a couple of guys—” he began.

  “We’re going to be all right, I think,” Anne said. Mr. Maroni had sounded positively ancient, but she had to assume he wouldn’t die until the funeral was over.

  “I just thought you might be short—”

  The whole world seemed to know what had occurred to her within the last twenty-four hours—that her father had died essentially friendless.

  At the viewing, the day before the funeral, Anne admitted to herself that she was in bad shape. All the arrangements, it turned out, were her responsibility. Each time something came up, she asked Mrs. Grouse if she’d rather, and each time her mother had looked unsure and said, “Maybe you’d better.” Only once everything was taken care did she understand that Mrs. Grouse had done her a favor. Now she felt herself slipping into a black numbness from which she was able to extract herself just enough to get annoyed at people who didn’t deserve it. The Woods arrived at the funeral home early, and to everyone’s surprise they brought old Milly, who hadn’t been out of the house on Kings Road since October, except for emergency trips to the hospital. The old woman immediately hobbled over to Mrs. Grouse and proclaimed in her loudest voice, “You poor dear, I never heard of such a thing.” Just a figure of speech, Anne knew. All her life the women of Mrs. Grouse’s family had “never heard of” life’s less pleasant aspects. Still, Anne had to fight back the urge to attack—“Never heard of death, Aunt Milly? Eighty years old, a husband in the grave, and you’ve never heard of such a thing?”

  She was not the only irritant. Diana joined the receiving line as a bereaved survivor, which made that line longer than the line of potential mourners it was meant to receive. Dallas arrived fresh from work, his hands and work clothes greasy. He was full of apologies for his appearance, and reiterated that he knew a couple of guys. Benny D. said he would, and Benny was all right. Even Dan annoyed her by stopping to chat with one of the mortuary employees before coming over to her. The only person Anne felt sorry for was Randall, who had said next to nothing in two days, and whose eyes had remained full the whole time. He refused to inspect the casket and stood so that it wasn’t even in his peripheral vision. Anne suspected that he might be in worse shape than she was, but feared that if she tried to console him she might come unraveled herself.

  Things remained askew throughout the evening. Dan remained on the edges. He didn’t want to make things awkward with the chair, and so Anne was unable to draw strength from his proximity. In fact he scarcely looked at her. To her relief, Dallas finally left, but then turned up again half an hour later, this time scrubbed and jacketed. As ex-son-in-law, bearer-to-be, he made the receiving line even longer. Then he tried talking to his son, but this was rough sledding and he finally gave up and returned to where Dan sat, the two of them looking extremely dejected, as if by the absence of a wet bar.

  Including the receiving line and the employees of the home, there were never more than twenty people in the room at once, and of those that came, Anne knew only a handful. Neighbors and a few old acquaintances. A few others introduced themselves in ways that clarified neither who they were nor how they had known her father. Two men claimed to be high-school classmates, but she couldn’t place them and suspected they were confused. In any case, life had not been kind to them, and the slack-jawed admiration with which they regarded her made Anne wonder what their wives must be like. An ugly little man wearing a black suit and smoking a particularly foul cigar came in and stood for a moment, stared at the casket, and then abruptly left. Anne did not speculate until far into the evening that some of the shabby people who paid their respects were present simply to be out of the cold, because it was the bitterest evening of the winter and there was a nice fire in the foyer.

  Actually, Anne pa
id scant attention to any of it. She could feel herself sinking lower and lower, and she raised herself to half-consciousness only when a hand was offered or someone wanting to explain who he was appeared before her. A few people wanted to talk about and pay her father compliments, but she could think of nothing to say in return. Her mother told everyone that he had died “peacefully, as he lived.” Which seemed plainly untrue, as least the last part. His existence had been full of hard work and dust and noise and shameful worry over money. Anne was glad that it was his heart that finally gave up, that he had not choked to death, gasping for oxygen, because he’d already had a lifetime of choking want and restriction. A peaceful death didn’t begin to balance the scales. Mather Grouse was owed a great deal, and now he couldn’t collect.

  Mrs. Grouse, on the other hand, was a wonder. She had been no help in making the arrangements, because doing things was outside her traditional purview. But Mrs. Grouse had no equal when it came to passive, stoic suffering, unless it was her sister Milly. During all the lean years when Mather Grouse came home after Thanksgiving with his pink slip—Christmas and the long winter ahead of them and little prospect of work—Anne could never remember her mother complaining. It simply meant that they would have to make do until spring when things would probably get better again. After all, hadn’t she been storing canned goods and hoarding small sums in anticipation of this very event? Hadn’t she even bought an early Christmas present or two? As for the rest, she would simply stretch what needed stretching—clothing and food—as need be. She would’ve shrunk in horror if anyone had suggested that she herself find a part-time job, not that anyone would have. But at skipping meals herself and finding ways to make a quarter pound of fatty bacon feed three people, she was a marvel.

 
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