Mohawk by Richard Russo


  Mather Grouse was another story. Traveling to a different city or two every week, Price had developed a casual forthrightness with strangers, and to make fast friends with a bartender took him all of two minutes and by the end of the evening he was drinking on the house. Unfortunately, Mather Grouse was not a bartender and for every ounce of Price’s easy charm, Mather Grouse had two ounces of New England reserve. Only time—in goodly amount—could change their fundamental relationship as strangers, and the fact that Price came with a warm introduction and recommendation from Mather Grouse’s own daughter did not alter a thing.

  Fortunately, Price had known better than to push, especially since they were visiting for only one afternoon. Anne hadn’t wanted to raise the issue of sleeping arrangements by spending the night in her parents’ house. They would find a hotel in Saratoga that night and drive into New England the next day after a nice breakfast, perhaps on the same white porch where she and Dallas had stopped, in what now seemed a different life. Price was agreeable. He was perhaps the most agreeable man she knew, so agreeable that even Mather Grouse was having a tough time remaining stolid. Her mother squeezed fresh lemonade and they all sat outside on the porch, Mrs. Grouse and Price chatting like long-separated cousins at a family reunion, the others content to listen to their banter. After a while Price and Randall, who’d begun to talk about playing Little League next summer, went down to the front lawn so Price could show him how to put the tag on a sliding runner. Throughout the summer Price had taught him something different each day, and Anne suspected that during the two upcoming weeks the boy would probably miss these lessons more than anything.

  “Here’s the base,” Price said. “You’re the runner.”

  Randall slid several times, and Price demonstrated the footwork around the bag and showed him how to keep from getting hurt. “If he comes in spikes down, like he’s supposed to, fine. If he comes in spikes up, step out of the way and step on him with yours.”

  Anne, watching her father, saw Mather Grouse’s face cloud over, and when Price and Randall returned, leaving behind them a small brown patch on the manicured lawn, her father spoke. “Do you think it’s wise to teach a young man to break the rules?”

  “No, sir, I don’t,” Price replied. “Every player should know how to protect himself, that’s all.”

  “Isn’t it up to the umpire to enforce the rules?”

  “That’s true enough. But sometimes they miss what’s going on. Sometimes they like the guy who’s breaking the rules. The game goes a lot smoother when everybody knows better than to take liberties.”

  “So the end justifies the means.”

  Price shrugged. He was comfortable enough with that philosophy, but clever enough to know it wouldn’t win him any points with Mather Grouse. “How would you handle it?”

  “I would report the infraction to the umpire.”

  Price smiled. “And that would stop your leg bleeding?”

  “Perhaps not,” Mather Grouse said. “But you would have the satisfaction of knowing that you played honorably.”

  Price’s grin broadened a little. “I never thought of it that way.”

  Anne smiled too. She suddenly realized she was very fond of Price. In fact, she might even be in love.

  35

  As usual, Dallas stopped at the OTB on his way to work, just long enough to pick up the sheets and see what was going on. The hard core were already there, milling around, scratching their three-day beards, looking for a sign. Several said hello and asked Dallas what was happening. He had no idea, and believing him, they asked who the hell did. The track, Dallas told them. The track had a pretty good idea what was going on. Untemeyer, the bookie, came in, caught the end of the conversation and smiled.

  “Meyer here knows how to beat the track,” Dallas said.

  “Go soak your head,” Untemeyer said. “Younger the Outlaw. I’m going to have you raided one of these days. I got connections.”

  “You also got thirty million dollars in quarters buried someplace. How about letting somebody else make a buck or two. You gotta have it all?”

  “I don’t get shit anymore, now that it’s all taxed and legal,” the old bookie said. “Younger the Outlaw.”

  He tried to duck away, but Dallas was too quick. Catching him by the elbow, Dallas held up the man’s hand so that the ring on Untemeyer’s stubby finger caught the light. “When you die, I’ll be waiting right around the corner with a hacksaw,” said Dallas, making a ripping sound in the back of his throat. Untemeyer was tired of the old joke, but the other men, who’d seen the routine just as many times, still enjoyed it.

  “I’ll swallow the goddam thing,” Untemeyer growled, “before I let you get your hands on it.”

  “I’d get it anyway,” Dallas smiled. “You ever gut a trout?”

  “You probably would, you bastard.” He gestured toward the door.

  Dallas and the bookie stepped outside, where Untemeyer had to puff harder on his cigar to effectively foul the air. Even in the hottest weather, Dallas had never seen him when he wasn’t wearing a baggy suit, usually black alpaca, with a slightly yellowed white shirt and black tie.

  “You were married to that Grouse girl for a while, right?

  Dallas nodded. “So?”

  “So nothing,” said Untemeyer. “See her much?”

  “I bet I haven’t run into her three times in the last five years. Last year, at my kid’s high school graduation, was the last time.”

  “The old lady still alive?”

  “Her mother? You couldn’t kill her with a hammer. What is this—you thinking about getting hitched again?”

  “Take off.”

  “Not a bad idea, Meyer.”

  “Get moving.”

  “You’re never too old.”

  “Like hell. I’m too old. You too, prob’ly.”

  “Too smart, you mean.”

  “In a hundred years, maybe.”

  “Take care, Meyer.”

  “Sure thing.”

  “And take care of that ring.”

  When Dallas closed the door behind him, the telephone was ringing. It was Benny D., his former boss, wanting to put a yard and a half down on a horse running at Santa Anita. Dallas found the horse and whistled. “I’ll have to check.”

  “What?” said Benny D.

  “What, your ass. You know what.”

  “What?”

  “The son-of-bitch’ll go off twenty to one. That’s a lot of action.”

  “You booking horses or not?”

  “I’ll get back to you.”

  Dallas tossed his coat in the corner and turned on the television. The room was big, once the offices of a closed-down department store, and it looked bare with just the sofa and television, and a black phone sitting on the stray kitchen chair. There was a good view from the curtainless window—the length of Main Street from the Four Corners all the way up to Fourth, and from the third floor Dallas could even see Myrtle Park. This was pretty much the same view he had from his high-school apartment, which was only three doors down before the wrecker got it.

  Benny D. must be on to something. He was a regular, popping for four or five bets a day. The double always. A race here and there, the triple. He was pretty sharp, too, but he usually bet five or ten, usually at Belmont. Only twice before had he popped for a hundred. Both times at the California track. Both times winners.

  “Hello, sweetheart,” Dallas said to John’s secretary. “Put him on, will you?”

  “He isn’t free—”

  “Put him on anyway.”

  In a minute the lawyer’s voice crackled on the line. “What?”

  “Good morning to you, too.”

  “It’s not a particularly good morning.”

  “Have it your way. Benny D. again.”

  “How much?”

  “Hundred and a half.”

  “Take it.”

  “Twenty to one. Guess where.”

  “Take it,” John barked.
r />   “I could lay off part.”

  “What the hell for?”

  “Suit yourself.”

  He dialed Benny D. “You’re in the book, pal.”

  “I’m not your pal. You walked out on me.”

  “I said I was going to. Why don’t you pay attention?”

  “I’m the boss in that garage.”

  “Good. So tell me: What’s with you and Santa Anita?”

  “It’s my lucky track. When are you coming back?”

  “When you learn to stay out of it.”

  “It’s my goddamn garage!”

  “Not for long, if you keep betting twenty-to-one shots.”

  “I know what I’m doing. Why do you want to work for that asshole?”

  “Bye.”

  Around one, Dallas called the Mohawk Grill’s unlisted number. “We don’t deliver,” Harry growled. “Drag your lazy ass across the street.”

  “The phone won’t stop ringing long enough.”

  “I can’t spare anybody.”

  “When you can.”

  “Forget it.”

  But around one-thirty Harry sent one of the girls over with coffee and a sandwich. She was Dallas’s favorite because she was built and had a nice way about her. On the whole he didn’t have much use for Gaffneys, but he liked this one. “When are you and I going to step out?” he teased.

  “I’m a married lady.”

  “He’s a stiff, honey.”

  “Tell me.”

  “I got a weak heart anyhow,” Dallas said, leering at her good-naturedly.

  “Guess who I saw yesterday?”

  “How should I know?”

  “Randall Younger.”

  Dallas frowned. “He’s in Buffalo.”

  “That’s what you know. He’s got real long hair.”

  “No.”

  “Him I’d go out with.”

  He listened to the receding sound of her footsteps and watched her dodge traffic in the street below. Feeling suddenly nervous, he took the phone off the hook and walked over to the OTB, laying off a hundred of Benny D.’s bet. If John didn’t like it, too goddamn bad. He’d like getting nailed for three grand even less. Not that it wouldn’t serve him right.

  The phone rang the rest of the afternoon and Dallas didn’t have a chance to think about anything. Benny D.’s horse ran like the wind. At six-thirty he closed up and went over to the Mohawk Grill for a hamburg steak and onions. He had just started eating when John came in looking sick, his shirttail hanging out from under his vest. He took the stool next to Dallas, who resumed his meal. “That fucking California horse ran, can you believe it?”

  “What’d you expect?”

  “I expected it to lose. Everybody expected it to lose. That’s how come it was twenty to one.”

  “Everybody except Benny D.,” Dallas paused to swallow, “who’s done the same thing to you twice already.”

  “How could he know anything about Santa Anita, of all places?”

  Dallas pushed his plate away. “Harry,” he said. “A man comes in and wants to bet you a hundred bucks he can cut the ace of spades from a deck of cards. What do you do?”

  Harry didn’t bother to turn around. “Tell him to take a hike.”

  Dallas turned to John, “There you go. You don’t need law school to figure that out.”

  John looked even sicker, “All right. Piss on me. I should’ve listened.”

  “Fortunately, I didn’t. I laid off a hundred.”

  “No.”

  “I ought to keep it, too.”

  The lawyer looked like he’d just given birth. “Let me buy you dinner.”

  “I can buy my own dinner.”

  “I owe you.”

  “You’ll end up owing everybody before you’re through.”

  “You’re all right,” John said.

  Dallas felt all right, too, and ordered a piece of pie.

  John was no sooner gone than Benny D. came in and clapped Dallas on the back. “Come back and work for me,” he said. “Your present employer isn’t likely to stay in business much longer.”

  “He does all right,” Dallas said, explaining what he’d done.

  Benny D. was disgusted. “Why help him out? Fuck guys like him.”

  “You’re probably right.” Dallas didn’t like John on principle. His old man gave the kid everything and bailed him out of every jam so he could act like a big wheel. Dallas couldn’t figure it, either. The old man had worked for everything he got. How much fun was there in watching sonny boy piss it all away? “Next time I’ll leave him alone.”

  “How’d you do today?” Benny D. said.

  “A winner at Santa Anita.”

  “Prick.”

  They drank a cup of coffee and left together. “There’s a game tonight.”

  Dallas shrugged. “Somebody said my kid’s in town. I thought I might go see him.”

  “That reminds me. You ever see your sister-in-law?”

  “Loraine?”

  Benny D. nodded. “I hear she’s out to The Velvet Pussycat all the while. Somebody said John was putting it to her.”

  “You’re kidding.”

  “Gaff had to take her home in the cruiser last weekend.”

  Dallas shook his head. The world had a way of surprising him, though most of the time he could figure things. Like today. He’d figured everything right all day long. But even on the best of days there were things nobody could count on. His kid was in town and had long hair, his sister-in-law was hanging out in the biggest dive in town. “Why was that?”

  “Too drunk to navigate, is what I heard. Let’s play some poker.”

  “Nah.”

  “Come on. It’s good for you when you’re low.”

  “I don’t know.”

  “We’ll split a bottle of bourbon, have a hell of a time. And next week you’ll come back to work for me. That John’s no good.”

  “He’s all right.”

  “But not like brothers. You and him never busted your balls together.”

  That much was true. Before Benny D. inherited the dealership, he and Dallas had knocked themselves out together on the road crew. They’d also chased women together, even caught a few who weren’t in the mood to run away. Both had been fresh from recent divorces, and neither one all that fastidious. After Anne, Dallas enjoyed women who called their pussies pussies. Benny D. had never known any other kind. He was all right, too, and they went way back. Dallas had damn near killed him once and Benny D. never even held a grudge.

  They took a good belt out of the bourbon bottle and climbed the dark stairs all the way to the third floor, toward the sound of gruff male laughter. “I thought your kid was in college someplace,” Benny D. said.

  “He is—or was, anyway.”

  “You gotta pay for that?”

  Dallas shook his head. “Scholarship.”

  “Good deal. He’ll turn out real smooth, like your friend John.”

  “John’ll be here,” Dallas warned.

  Benny D. laughed. “I hope to Christ he is.”

  36

  Their vacation in Maine was blessed by fresh warm weather, gentle ocean breezes and the leisure to enjoy them. Price made good his promise to forget baseball. He bought the paper every day and checked the box scores, which told him who was playing and how well. But he didn’t introduce the subject into conversation, and seemed content to massage suntan oil into Anne’s shoulderblades. By the time they got back to the city it would be August, when each team was allowed to expand its roster for the stretch drive; if anything happened, it would happen then. He rose early each morning and ran on the beach, showered, went out for pastries and returned in time to watch Anne wake up. To tan deeply took her no time at all, and her dark skin contrasted beautifully on the white sheets. Most mornings they didn’t get to the pastries right away.

  “Let’s get married and have kids,” Price said the afternoon of their last day. The proposal didn’t surprise Anne as much as Price’s tone.
He might just as well’ve been suggesting they stroll down the beach for a bag of clams.

  “Sure,” Anne said. “Why not. Maybe.”

  “I always know where I stand with you. I like that.”

  Anne picked up a handful of white sand and rubbed it into Price’s oiled chest, making a paste-hair mixture. “I hated being pregnant.”

  “Don’t be silly.”

  “Besides, if we married you’d already have a son.”

  At first Price didn’t know what to say to that, and Anne could sense his reservations. “Men want sons of their own. I can’t explain why.”

  “Right.”

  “No, really,” he insisted. “Besides. I got gypped out of Randy’s early years. And he’s already got bad habits.”

  Price was so serious that Anne couldn’t help but smile. “What a crummy thing to say.”

  He rolled over on his side and used the corner of the towel to daub the mud from his chest. “Why do you call him Randall instead of Randy?”

  “Is that his bad habit?”

  “He throws sidearm. I can’t break him of it.”

  “And that prevents him from being a true son of yours.”

  “I guess not,” Price admitted, grinning suddenly at his own seriousness. “But sidearm is a tough way to go through life. I’d spare him if I could.”

  “Did it ever occur to you that he might end up a lawyer?”

  “There are sidearmed lawyers, too. The majority, come to think of it.”

  “You have the soul of a satirist.”

  “Bullshit,” he said. “I have the soul of a third baseman.”

 
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