Mohawk by Richard Russo

  Harry ignores him, once again regretting having taken on his wife as cashier.

  Officer Gaffney is suspicious of this Younger and has been for years, ever since the day the old hospital came down and he was found there in the wreck of a lobby, looking as if God himself had set him down where no human boy could’ve possibly arrived on his own, what with all the bricks and plaster coming down. Two of the men who’d gone into the building, first for the boy and then for Wild Bill, were hurt by the falling debris, but there he had stood, all of fourteen years old, and not a scratch on him. The policeman was alone in thinking the boy’s story dubious. The town had insisted on making a hero out of him, running his picture in the paper, getting him on the Albany TV news. But there was plently that didn’t add up, and Gaffney was too good a policeman not to wonder. The boy had to have a reason for going into the hospital, just like he had to have a reason for turning up to take a kitchen job for two bucks an hour. This young man bore watching, even if Officer Gaffney could do the watching only for another two weeks.

  The door swung open and the girl came back in. She tossed a plastic tray on top of the stack and was gone again into the kitchen on the door’s backswing. Wild Bill was still standing at the Hobart, surrounded by tubs of dirty dishes. Instead of stacking them in the waiting trays, he had stooped to peer up into an inverted water glass at a single ice cube sticking to its bottom, defying gravity. To the policeman he had always seemed doglike, even as a boy. That look of expectant loyalty.

  His brother had hit the boy the way you hit a dog that day. First striking him, then growling “Get over here!” when he tried to slink away, the boy returning to take another slap in the head. “You can’t make me!” he said over and over again, while his father repeated “What did I tell you!”—as if those were the only two sentences they knew between them. This time Officer Gaffney himself had brought the boy home from Mountain Avenue. Standing there was all he’d been doing, not that he had any business doing even that. “You stay the hell out of this, Walt. So help me. You stay out.” And so he had gone outside to wait, but out there it was even worse and he went back inside again. By then the boy’s one eye was swollen shut and his brother was red-faced from hitting, but still the boy kept saying it. And still Rory Gaffney kept growling “Come here!” and instead of disobeying this order the way he did the other, he did as he was told, stupid boy, kept coming back, his eye shut and ugly, his lips swollen up thick and purple, now screaming “You can’t make me!” At this pass Rory Gaffney, who’d beaten his son into this condition open-handed, closed his fist. The boy saw it, but was too sluggish to do more than turn his head. When the blow caught him on the temple, the boy dropped to his knees. For support he lunged forward and hugged his father’s knees. Then both father and son were quiet, and Officer Gaffney left them like that and wandered out onto the porch. A while later, Rory Gaffney came out, blood on his hands and pants, and collapsed into the chair next to his brother. His eyes were dull. “I think I hurt my boy, Walt. That’s what I think.”

  Officer Gaffney went inside to look. The boy lay asleep on the sofa where his father had put him. At first the policeman thought he was dead. But finally he got the boy to sit and open the eye that would open, but he couldn’t keep the boy awake and finally he gave up. Rory Gaffney watched from the doorway. “You better take him to the hospital,” he said. “He’s hurt, Walt.”

  “Wait,” the policeman said, unable to imagine himself carrying the boy in, having to explain, having to point the finger at his own brother. “Wait. We don’t know. He may come around if we leave him be.”

  “I think I hurt my boy, that’s what I think.” Rory Gaffney said.

  “You don’t know.…”

  Officer Gaffney has not wanted to remember all this again, but there it is in the bottom of his coffee cup. He hates himself once again, along with the Younger boy who had stepped in when God himself had seemed to decree that Wild Bill should die and leave off tormenting. For some time now, the policeman has understood that when he said “Wait!” he’d made the choice of his life, though he hadn’t suspected it at the time, or even for years afterward. “No. Let’s wait,” he had said, and later, when it was clear there was no way to hide what had happened, it wasn’t Rory Gaffney who’d figured out how to, but himself. He had instructed his brother where to take the boy, what to do, how long to stay away, what to tell people when he came back—all the while thinking that what he ought to do was use the gun he’d worn strapped to his hip for so long he’d forgotten it was there. Shoot him, he’d thought. Then the boy. Then yourself.

  The trouble was, he could only hate himself.

  The kitchen door swings open and Wild Bill emerges with his empty coke glass. He is returning it to Harry, whence it came. He cannot figure that the thing to do is to put it in the rack with the other dirty glasses. Instead he puts it in the tub under the counter. “You stay in the kitchen,” Harry says. Through the swinging door Officer Gaffney is watching the kitchen. The Younger boy is slicing a head of lettuce with a gleaming knife. When the girl glides by, she kisses him on the back of the neck. He catches her before she can get away and kisses her on the lips, the knife resting along her flank. The policeman sees all this before the door settles shut, and he keeps on seeing it.


  “I never heard of such a thing,” said Milly, glowering at the patch of ground as she leaned on Mrs. Grouse’s arm. “It’s enough to make you go live in the highrise.”

  Dan had just dropped the old woman off for a visit. She’d been released from the hospital that morning, and Diana, who usually accompanied her mother on such visits, had collapsed into bed around mid-morning, and Dan had refused to let Milly wake her up. “How will I get up those steps?” she wanted to know.

  “Then stay home,” Dan advised. “But you aren’t waking her up.”

  “I guess I can manage,” the old woman said. “I always do.”

  “Right,” Dan had muttered.

  The two old women now supported each other, two sloping sides to the narrow based isosceles triangle. “How big are they,” asked Milly.

  Mrs. Grouse admitted she’d never actually seen one.

  “They’re turning the grass all yellow,” Milly observed, pointing to several leprous patches of dying grass where her sister had sprayed concentrated doses of Raid.

  “They come at night,” Mrs. Grouse said. “Out of the ground.”

  “You poor dear,” her sister said as they teetered their way up the porch steps.


  When Randall rolled over to look at the girl, the trailer rocked. She was frowning at him again, the way she did whenever they made love. Pretty often, lately. “Quit that,” he said.

  “What?” She did a pushup, and looked down at him. She was the most charmingly immodest girl he’d ever known.

  “Quit that too,” he said when she attacked his neck.

  “Why are all you men scared of hickies?”

  Randall didn’t know. “Don’t change the subject.”

  She made her serious face. “What was the subject?”

  “The subject is why you always look at me like that.”

  “I’m trying to figure out what you want with me.”

  “Some people would say I just had it.”

  She put her head on his chest and traced her index finger along his abdomen. “Not you,” she said. “You tell me, then. What?”

  The girl sighed. “I don’t know. Something weird, probably, knowing you.”

  Why did people say things like that about him, Randall wondered. It was as if someone had started a rumor when he was a baby and by now everybody had heard it. He never seemed strange to himself, despite the conventional wisdom. They lay quietly, and the girl was nearly asleep, her head on his chest, when the baby cried and she got up. This was Randall’s first time in a trailer, and this particular one seemed so precariously balanced that whenever anybody moved, his first instinct was to grab for a support.

?I know what I like about you,” she said when she returned, yawning, from the baby’s bedroom. “You never fall asleep after we screw.”

  “You do.”

  “Somebody has to be first.”

  “I never thought of that.”

  “Night.” She closed her eyes and went right to sleep.

  What did he want with her? “Did you read the paper tonight?” he asked.

  She grunted awake. “What?”

  “Did you?”


  “You should—it’s full of interesting stuff. Did you know that another kid from Mohawk got killed in Vietnam?”

  She didn’t say anything.

  “That’s not even the interesting part,” he said. “Would you like to know the interesting part?”


  “The interesting part is that the guy who got killed beat me up once when I was a kid. Right out back of Harry’s. Then your uncle showed up, saved my goose and cooked his own.”

  “So. What’s the point?”

  “No point at all. Go to sleep.”

  “Okay,” she said, and closed her eyes. Then she opened them. “You mad?”

  “Of course not.”

  “And there really wasn’t a point?”

  “Not a point in the world.”

  “Good,” she said. “I’m always missing the point, and I hate it.”

  Thirty seconds later her breathing was rhythmic, her eyelids fluttering. Randall was free to watch her. The girl wasn’t nearly as pretty asleep as she was awake—as if consciousness were the main focus on her beauty. Asleep, she looked seventeen-going-on-thirty-five. It had never occurred to Randall that people assumed postures in their sleep, but B.G. did. Asleep, her body lost its confidence, and he wondered what she’d look like when she really was thirty-five.

  It would’ve been nice if she’d stayed awake long enough to talk. Not that he blamed her for conking out. Nobody at Harry’s worked harder than she did, running back and forth between rooms, between the racing-formers at the counter and the argumentative old bags eating chicken salad platters. The latter required her to be handy without intruding. She was too pretty not to be an annoyance among such women, some of whom once were pretty in the same way she now was. When she was at the table, they wanted her to go away; but if she stayed away too long, they felt slighted and would scrimp on the tip. At the lunch counter the men wanted her to linger and listen to slightly off-color jokes calculated to make her blush. The men seldom came on strong, being as shy as they’d always been, but didn’t like to be ignored. She found that if she joked with them and indulged their fantasies, they treated her well enough. She didn’t mind the remarks they made when her back was turned, the hastily exchanged glances, the ooooh-shaped lips. At the end of the work day she wanted to play with the baby, get laid and go to sleep. She told Randall she didn’t think about her husband any more, and as far as he could tell she literally meant what she said. She didn’t mean that she’d stopped worrying about him, or being angry with him for abandoning her and the baby, or guilty about being unfaithful to his tainted memory. As far as she was concerned, he just didn’t exist any more.

  She wasn’t much of a talker anyway, or even a listener. Maybe that was why Randall enjoyed talking to her. She seldom responded to anything he said; and if she had any reaction at all, it was frequently puzzlement, as if she hadn’t any idea where such odd notions came from. After college professors, Randall found her refreshing, and the more she frowned at him, the more critical he became of what he heard himself saying. He had attempted, just once, to explain to her the nature of ethical dilemmas, but gave up once he realized her own daily life had little to do with choice and probably never would. Had he been able to offer her as evidence in his recent honors seminar in free will, the course would’ve been struck from the curriculum. Or his father, for that matter, who had spent his whole life trying to figure the odds, never perceiving the random nature of things that made horse races horse races and his own life an endless series of completely novel experiences. New teeth every other month, post time every thirty-five minutes. Place your bets.

  Randall sat up in bed and swung his feet onto the floor. The trailer shifted but the girl didn’t stir. He pulled on his Levis and buttoned them from the bottom up. It was a warm night and there was no need to put on a shirt. In the next room, the baby was asleep in her crib, the tiny room smelling of baby and baby powder. Small children always overwhelmed Randall with the sense of life’s possibilities. Amazing, how quickly those possibilities vanished. Five-year-olds often had personalities as fixed and rigid as their parents, and if you couldn’t tell who’d get killed in the street by a drunk driver, you’d be pretty safe in predicting who wouldn’t grow up to be a surgeon. And anyone clever enough to predict Vietnam surely could’ve foreseen that the boy who’d sat cheerfully on Randall Younger’s chest and punched him in the face would end up in a reddening paddy. Randall’s ending up at the university was part of the same prediction, but what about his dropping out and returning to Mohawk? Maybe that too. Were there clues somewhere in his past, or his mother’s, or grandfather’s, if he looked hard enough? Maybe he’d quit because of something that had happened in the alley behind Harry’s, or in the old Littler Hospital, or in the infield where Price hit grounders at him, or in the park where he discovered his grandfather slumped over on the park bench, staring up at the black, high branches of the lifeless trees as the other man, this girl’s grandfather, retreated. And what did he want with this girl? Not love, surely, though he cared for her. Not lust, though he enjoyed her. Not admiration, though he found her grasp of reality appealing.

  Outside, the night was black, a gentle breeze that hadn’t found its way into the trailer. Randall sat down on the cinder block that served as a step. He carefully rolled a joint and smoked it, the orange inching toward his lips. For some reason he wasn’t startled by the voice, though it was very near; as if he’d been expecting it for a long time.

  “Mather Grouse,” it said.


  “Has it occurred to you,” Anne Grouse asked her mother, “how much of our daily conversation is on the subject of worms?”

  “If you’re having a mood, dear, we needn’t talk about anything.”

  “It’s just that we’ve been through it all. You can’t kill the worms without killing the grass. You have to poison the soil.”

  “What I don’t understand is why they came here in the first place,” Mrs. Grouse said. “They’ve come for something.”



  “We’re still talking about worms, aren’t we. They’re just here, Mother. Can’t we leave it at that? They aren’t causing any harm—in fact they’re good for the lawn—and they’ve probably been here all along. You just never noticed. Besides, it’s been a rainy summer. There are more serious problems, if you care to talk about them.”

  “Randall said he’d paint the house,” Mrs. Grouse offered. She was dipping her tea bag in and out of the steaming water like a yo-yo. Finally, when the liquid was perfectly brown, she deposited the bag on the saucer. After adding two heaping teaspoons of sugar, she pushed the bowl toward her daughter, who was drinking coffee, black. “For your disposition,” she said.

  This was as close to humor as her mother ever got. The old woman’s wit always surfaced when Anne was most serious. “I’m not talking about painting, Mother. Painting is the least of our worries.”

  Unfortunately, the subject of house repairs was proscribed. Mrs. Grouse, having completed the canonization of her husband, was seldom in the mood to entertain the blasphemous suggestion that anything at all was wrong with his house. “He left it in ideal condition,” she was fond of telling her sister.

  It was typical of their relationship that Anne and her Mother never worried about the same things. With the roof beginning to leak, wetting the attic insulation and discoloring the wallpaper in the corners of Anne’s ceiling, Mrs. Grouse could think only of the wo
rms. Each morning she went into the cellar, as far as the landing, half expecting to find a rupture in the concrete floor, a sea of night-crawlers spilling out of the walls. Water, on the other hand, was pure—it came from heaven—and she didn’t for an instant believe that anything was wrong with the roof.

  “Not our worries,” Mrs. Grouse said. “Mine. If repairs are ever needed, they will be my responsibility as the homeowner. I am not in the habit of shirking responsibilities.”

  Anne massaged her temples. “It isn’t a question of shirking, Mother. A new roof costs thousands of dollars. I don’t have it, and I don’t think you do either. But unless we do something soon, the house will be worthless. You won’t be able to give it away.”

  “I have no intention of giving it away. What makes you think I did?”

  “Fine,” Anne concluded, as always. Arguing with her mother was like trying to put a cat into a bag; there was always one limb left over. “Do what you want.”

  “Your father put on the best new roof money could buy,” Mrs. Grouse said. “The very best.”

  “Yes. Over ten years ago, he did. Before the ice storm this winter. Before the tree fell on it.”

  “Well, then.”

  “I’m going for a drive, Mother.”

  Dan was sitting in front of the Lincoln, its hood up, when she pulled in. He had a wrench in one hand and a sweating cocktail in the other. “They make these goddamn things so cripples can drive them, but not work on them.”

  “Don’t change the subject,” she said.

  He looked guilty, but didn’t give in easily. “Don’t even start. I’ve very nearly brained two women in the last twenty-four hours, and the regret for lost opportunities is almost more than I can bear.”

  “You might’ve called.”

  “I thought about it. Did Di?”

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