Mohawk by Richard Russo


  “Really?” Randall said, not sure he believed her. A Kentucky Fried Chicken in Mohawk. Imagine.

  On lower Main were several vacant stores, including what once was a small grocery owned by the father of one of Randall’s classmates. One of his sort-of friends. He had neither seen nor corresponded with anyone from high school since leaving Mohawk. Still, he was sorry to see the small grocery closed. “So, how’s college?” the girl said.

  “What makes you think I’m at one?”

  “The hair,” his companion said matter-of-factly.

  “It just grows,” he told her. “Whether you pay tuition or not.”

  “I don’t see what the point is. Of college, I mean.” She said it as if she really wanted to know what he thought the point might be.

  Randall didn’t have a handy explanation, though he liked studying. It was nice to sit around and read books without people thinking you were peculiar. You could even call it work, if you wanted to, and nobody there bothered to disagree. Randall himself had done real work and knew the difference, and he suspected that a lot of other people did too. But as complicities went, this one was harmless enough. Certainly more harmless than the one that sent people halfway around the world to kill or be killed in the name of national defense. He wondered what his grandfather would’ve thought of having a draft dodger for a grandson. Very soon, that’s what Randall would officially become. For all he knew, he was one already. Since dropping out at the beginning of the spring semester, he hadn’t made himself all that easy to locate. No doubt his mother had been collecting plenty of official documents bearing his name. That was partly the reason for his return. He had to try and explain to his mother. If Mather Grouse were still alive, Randall would’ve tried to explain to him, too. He doubted his grandfather would’ve understood, any more than he would have understood the hair and the stubble. Randall smiled at the thought of his grandfather, picturing Mather Grouse as he always did, shoveling the sidewalk or cutting the grass or weeding the small strip of garden in back of the house or stirring paint with a stick, patiently, the oil swirling gently toward the vortex in the center of the can until the mixture was smooth as velvet.

  “Go to war,” his grandfather would have advised him. “You will not have to kill. They will know what to do with you and the killing you object to will fall to someone else who probably will not object. You will learn about them and about yourself. You will not like what you learn, but better to learn it anyway.”

  “Spring break, or what?” the girl said.

  They were stopped beneath the traffic light at the Four Corners. The girl had told the truth. Halfway up the block a large red-and-white bucket rotated next to the dome of the Mohawk Bank and Trust.

  “I guess I’m pretty nosy, huh?”

  “Just medium nosy.”

  “I know who you are, even.”

  Randall doubted that. The last time he looked at himself in a mirror, it was all he could do to recognize himself. And he’d never seen this girl before.

  “You’re Randall Younger,” she said when the light changed. “When I was a sophomore and you were a senior, I had the biggest crush in the world on you.”

  Randall was surprised. “You should’ve said something.”

  “You got any money?” she said, pulling into Kentucky Fried Chicken.

  “You should have caught me earlier this morning. I was loaded. I gave it all to a needy man in Fonda.”

  “My treat, then.”

  Randall was hungry, but he didn’t like the idea of letting a strange girl pay for his food. There was a remote possibility that his grandfather would’ve learned to accept the draft evasion, but sponging a meal off a teenage girl whose car had a see-through floor was harder to justify. “It’s only ten-thirty,” Randall objected.

  “The best time. The chicken hasn’t had a chance to sit around and get soggy.”

  She was already ordering into a speaker mounted on the column. Nine pieces of the Colonel’s Original Recipe, slaw, rolls, Cokes. “You can take me out some time if you want,” she said, and soon enough was handing him the cartons, one at a time, until they formed a warm pyramid on his lap. She swung the VW into a parking space beside the dumpster. “I’ve still got a little crush on you. Or I would have, if you shaved and dressed up nice.”

  “I don’t think I’m going to be in town all that long,” he said. “Not that it wouldn’t be nice to go out with you.”

  They both ate hungrily, and the chicken tasted very good, midmorning or not. There was only one spoon, so Randall made the girl eat the coleslaw.

  “Probably just as well,” she said. “I gotta stop with these crushes anyhow. It’s not so good when you’re married.”

  “I’m not married,” Randall said, glad that she was finally mistaken about something.

  “I know,” she said. “I am.”

  Randall stopped eating and looked at her. “You aren’t old enough,” he said, aware that this observation wasn’t particularly intelligent.

  “You’re right,” the girl conceded cheerfully. “Old enough to get knocked up, though. You should see my kid sometime.’

  She had picked her piece of chicken clean and now deposited it in the bag. “You care if I take the other wing too?”

  “Sure,” Randall said. “Live.”

  “They’re the best part. I don’t care what people say.”

  “You’re easily pleased.”

  “True,” she admitted. “I bet you’re just the opposite. I bet you aren’t happy very much.”

  “What makes you say that?”

  “I remember you from before. You always looked kind of sad in high school.”

  “I didn’t mean to.”

  She shrugged.

  “Did you like Mohawk High,” he asked.

  “Sure. Wish I didn’t have to quit.”

  “Go back.”

  She thought about it, chicken wing suspended a few inches from her lips. “Nah. I like different stuff now.”

  Randall suddenly realized that talking to this girl had cheered him. Chatter was usually annoying, but hers was so good-natured he found himself grinning. “What stuff’s that?”

  “Different things. You got any grass?”

  “Good Lord.”

  “What’s the matter?”

  “This is Mohawk.”

  “So?”

  “Nothing.” What the hell, now that there’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Sorry to disappoint you.”

  “Not very generous, after I paid for lunch. You probably think I’d tell where I got it.”

  “Tell me about your husband.”

  “Mostly he just rides his motorcycle. He wouldn’t like the looks of you.”

  “That’s a shame. We might become the best of friends.”

  The girl missed his sarcasm. “I don’t think so. You’re completely different.”

  “I bet he wouldn’t be thrilled about the idea of your picking up hitchhikers either.”

  “He wouldn’t care. He’s got some girl over in Ephrata.”

  “You aren’t living together?”

  She lip-farted. “God, no! What would I want to live with him for?”

  Randall hadn’t any idea. They ate until the boxes were empty and the paper bag they came in was full of bones. Randall took the trash to the dumpster and breathed in air that smelled a little like Kentucky Fried Chicken, a little like Mohawk and a little like the dumpster. A few doors up the street was the Mohawk Grill, behind it the alley where he had been beaten, and further up the hill a vacant parking lot where Nathan Littler Hospital once stood. The scene of his greatest moment. The hero, Randall thought with a smile, turned draft dodger. There were people who probably didn’t even remember the old hospital. For almost six years now the sirens wailed right up the highway, bypassing the town just like everything else did.

  The girl wiped her hands with one of the Colonel’s special lemony cloths after deeply inhaling its fragrance. “I love these things,” she said. “Don’t
you?”

  “You can have mine.”

  “Really?” she said, dropping the packet in her open purse. “I’ll use it on the baby. You want to go to Mountain Avenue?”

  Randall blinked.

  “Like I said. I know all about you.”

  “It must’ve been some crush.”

  They drove north up Main.

  “Let me out at the fire station. I’d kind of like to walk the last few blocks.”

  “Sure.” She pulled over and he got out. To his surprise, his bedroll was still wedged behind the front seat. “I didn’t even catch your name.”

  “Call me B.G.”

  “All right, B.G. Be good. Watch out for those crushes.”

  “Can’t help it with you,” she said. When she flushed, the color dispelled the faint dinginess of her complexion and she was genuinely pretty. “Actually, it goes back to when you were thirteen and I was eleven.”

  “Come on.”

  “Really. I’d never even seen you.”

  He wouldn’t have believed the girl if she hadn’t sounded so serious.

  “I probably shouldn’t tell you what the “G” is for, but what the hell. It’s the first letter of my maiden name.”

  Suddenly Randall knew, though he could think of no reason for the sudden intuition. “Gaffney,” he said, even as he heard her say it.

  “That was my uncle you saved,” she said. “I fell for you sight unseen. What’s the matter?”

  In fact, Randall felt suddenly awash, as if he’d unexpectedly come upon the answer to a riddle he was asked long ago and had since forgotten.

  “Don’t be embarrassed. You were great.”

  He couldn’t agree. Earlier, on the outskirts of town, he had felt that everything was slightly askew, too close together. As if the disappearance of the old hospital had created a void that was drawing everything in Mohawk a little closer to the vortex, like the oil in his grandfather’s paint can. He himself had been drawn all the way from Buffalo. Maybe he hadn’t come to explain the present to his mother. Maybe she was the one who had something to tell him. She was Mather Grouse’s daughter, and she must know.

  “They’re releasing him the first of the month,” he heard the girl saying, and for some reason he concluded that she was talking about his grandfather.

  “Releasing—”

  “Yup,” she said. “Wild Bill rides again. He’s coming home.”

  31

  From the back porch Anne Grouse watched her mother through the kitchen window. Mrs. Grouse had changed very little. At first Anne feared that Mather Grouse’s death might precipitate a rapid decline, since from the diagnosis of his illness Mrs. Grouse had focused all her energies on her husband and seemed ill-equipped to continue without him. But Anne had underestimated her mother, and now wondered if perhaps it wasn’t their unfortunate destiny always to underestimate each other.

  Mrs. Grouse was unaware of her daughter’s presence on the back porch, where Anne was getting the garbage ready for the Thursday collection. The older woman, having thoroughly dried the breakfast dishes with her thin dish towel—she refused to use the plastic, drainboard contraption her daughter had bought for her at Woolworth’s, preferring to dry each teacup by hand— was engaged in setting the table for her noon meal, still several hours away. She had set two places, because Anne came home from work at noon to make sure the morning garbage collection had gone off without a hitch. Her mother’s fretting about the trash had intensified over the years and now occupied her thoughts out of all proportion. When the dogs got to it before the garbage men, she’d regale her daughter with vivid descriptions of the mess while they ate their grilled-cheese sandwiches.

  Mrs. Grouse was usually talkative during these Thursday lunches, because they were “like strangers, after all,” though they lived under the same roof. Anne had categorically refused to move downstairs when Randall went off to the university. Her daughter’s reasons for wanting to maintain a separate household were entirely unclear to Mrs. Grouse, who discussed this strange arrangement with her sister every time the old woman visited. “Queer” was the term Milly used. Anne was officially to blame, but she knew that her mother wouldn’t have things any other way and would not have allowed the introduction of her daughter’s things into the downstairs flat.

  Mrs. Grouse carefully arranged the cups and plates as if the plastic placemats were printed with exact geometric designs that matched the dishes and silver. She lined up the plates first, adjusting and readjusting, an inch this way, then the opposite, until it felt exactly right. Anne watched from the porch, fighting the hardening she felt in her heart. Her mother’s face exhibited that faraway expression that always meant she was working out some thorny point of consequence only to herself, and possibly her sister.

  Mather Grouse’s death had been the final link in the sisters’ symbiotic chain. Mrs. Grouse had been shaky and fearful, but began to rally once her daughter canceled her contract with the movers and found another job in Mohawk, this one paying far less. Of the two, Mrs. Grouse had adjusted far better. But then, the old woman had a blueprint to follow. Milly had suffered a similar loss, and accepted it with a stoic forebearance only slightly diminished by the fact that in the decade before his death, she and her husband had not spoken a dozen words to each other. To hear her talk, as Dan Wood often remarked, anyone would’ve concluded that she’d lost her soul’s mate. In fact, burying her husband had given Milly something of an unfair advantage over Mrs. Grouse since both women derived great satisfaction from loading onto their slender shoulders every hardship life could impose. If anything, Mrs. Grouse now had the upper hand, having both a deceased husband and a divorced daughter to her credit. But she was too kind to press an unfair advantage, and the two agreed that each had leaden crosses to bear.

  Mrs. Grouse did not stray from the kitchen table. She would stop inching the silver once she’d resolved whatever problem absorbed her. Only then would the table be set correctly, the knives and forks resting in their proper slots. Anne came inside just as her mother reached her conclusion. “Goobies,” Mrs. Grouse said.

  “What?”

  Mrs. Grouse started, not expecting to see her daughter in the doorway. “Some goobies,” she elaborated. “You know. Chocolate-covered cherries. Peanut brittle. Will you ever forget how he loved peanut brittle?”

  “Dad refused to eat peanut brittle. You’re confusing him with yourself.”

  Mrs. Grouse, suddenly perceiving another flaw in the arrangement of the cutlery, began maneuvering a fork. “I should think I’d know whether he liked peanut brittle or not. After all, I lived with him for over forty years … I sat up with him all night long when he couldn’t catch a breath … I—”

  “You’re right, Mother. I’m sorry. I’ll pick up some peanut brittle on the way home from work if you like.”

  “Whatever for? I’m not able to walk a few short blocks?”

  “Fine, Mother. Walk, by all means.”

  Anne went upstairs to finish getting ready for work. She particularly hated Thursdays. She didn’t go in until late morning, but didn’t get home until well after the nine o’clock closing. Then she had to open the store the next morning. Sixty hours a week at roughly minimum wage. And that wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was remembering that staying in Mohawk was her choice.

  She was pulling on her coat when Mrs. Grouse’s voice floated up hallway. “There’s someone at the door, dear.”

  The bell hadn’t rung and Anne had heard no knock. “Mine?”

  “Come down,” Mrs. Grouse said. Her voice was edgy, and when Anne came in she was standing next to her place setting wringing her hands nervously. “He has long hair,” Mrs. Grouse explained. “He doesn’t look right.”

  She followed her daughter into the living room. The blinds were drawn, the room dark. When Anne opened them, the flat was flooded with light, and her mother shrunk back involuntarily, either from the light or the expression on her daughter’s face. “Who is it?” she said.
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  32

  Out by the highway a cold rain was falling on the Mohawk Medical Services Center. The dampness found its way into the building, and the nurses scurrying among the corridors threw sweaters over their shoulders. Diana Wood, seated bare-armed outside Room 247, shivered and wished vaguely that she hadn’t made this particular visit, especially since there was no need to. This was the way it always turned out. Her mother had brightened up as soon as they pulled into the hospital drive and told the first doctor she saw that she hadn’t any idea what all the fuss was about. She’d never heard of such a thing. All this after her frantic ringing of the hand bell on the nightstand next to her bed, and the panic-stricken eyes. “I can’t breathe!” she had breathed, a mere whisper, frightening Diana terribly. Only Dan had taken it in stride. “Neither can I,” he remarked to his mummylike mother-in-law lost in a queen-size bed.

  In a few minutes he wheeled around the corner and joined his wife in the bright corridor.

  “That didn’t take long,” Diana said, trying to sound cheerful.

  “They always have our file handy. I fill in ‘complaint’ and ‘date.’ They copy the rest.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said.

  “You always are. That’s part of the ritual.”

  “I always mean it,” Diana said. “Doesn’t that count?”

  “Of course it counts. It’s the only thing that does. Just don’t try to talk me out of being angry. In fact, you ought to try getting bent out of shape yourself.”

  “I’m bent enough, apparently.”

  “Forget it. That kid was a jerk.”

  On the way into the hospital, one of the young interns had asked if Milly and Diana were sisters. An honest mistake.

  “I’m going home,” Dan said.

  The lights in the corridor dimmed briefly, then came back again.

  “Yes,” Diana said, blinking, “Go.”

  “Come with me. We could both use a night without the bell.”

 
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