Mohawk by Richard Russo

“This morning. She said Milly was, what? out of danger.”

  “Second time this week. They’ll release her tomorrow, same as always.”

  “I wish you’d called.”

  “So do I, but you can’t count on me. You should know that.”

  Anne smiled. “I can, though. In ways you don’t know.” She nodded at the car. “Anything I can do?”

  He studied her, frowning. “Not dressed like that. Don’t you own anything ratty?” He motioned toward a TV tray on which sat an ice bucket, a bottle of whiskey, two-thirds full, a capped bottle of club soda. “Help yourself.”

  “You’re always so well prepared.”

  “Good scotch draws a crowd. Or it used to, anyhow. I guess marijuana’s the party-saver these days.”

  “Feeling out of things?”

  “Not particularly,” he said. But his attempt to be cheerful cost him too much to be convincing. “My next wife is going to be a mechanic,” he said, flipping the wrench over his shoulder. It richocheted off the motor and disappeared, rattling loudly until it fell free onto the concrete beneath the Lincoln. “How’s your mother?”

  “Still worrying about worms.”

  “Kill the soil and they’ll go away.”

  “I hate to give in.”

  “I wouldn’t.”

  “I always enjoy your advice.”

  He raised his scotch and they clinked glasses. “Thank you very much.”

  Anne unfolded a lawn chair and they sat together without saying anything. Suddenly Dan was crying. Noiselessly, the tears streamed down his face, though his expression had not changed. When she started to speak, he held up a hand and, in a few minutes, managed to stop. He didn’t bother to wipe the tracks.

  “You want to hear something good,” he said. “I’ve started dreaming again. First time in years. I’m always twenty-three or so, a real specimen. I live on the beach and all the neighbor girls have big chests and sunbathe in the nude. I’m married to Diana. Not Diana at twenty-three, but Diana at forty-four. In the dream everybody’s always asking how come I married the old lady. I never know what to tell them. I play with the neighbor girls for a while, and then, just when things are getting interesting, I feel the paralysis coming, and suddenly I can’t move. I wake up sweating, trying like a bastard.”

  When Anne said nothing, he drained the rest of his scotch and looked at her. “Now don’t you start.”

  “I won’t,” she promised.

  “Anyhow,” he said. “My next wife is going to be my own age. Twenty-three. With big tits.”

  “And here I’d hoped—”

  “Not on your life. You’re too old for me.”

  Before she left, Anne fished the wrench out from under the car with a broom handle, and he began to curse the car again with his customary good humor. He was drunk, and when Diana came home from the hospital she’d have to pour him into bed, where he could dream of youth and beauty.

  43

  The game broke up when Dallas and Benny D. were good and cleaned. “Jesus, I can’t stand that fuckin’ John,” Benny D. said when they were out in the fresh air on Main Street. It was still pretty early, only a little after one A.M. Both men were loaded, but not over the top. “Let’s go someplace.”

  “Nah.”

  “Come on,” Benny D. insisted.

  “Nah,” Dallas said, and the two men ambled up Main Street together toward Harry’s. The grill was closed, like every other place downtown. The afternoon had been hot, but the night air was cool.

  “I can’t stand that fucker,” Benny D. said. “I don’t see how you can work—”

  “I don’t see him any more than you do. We settle up once a week. That’s it.”

  “I don’t see how you can work for him, that’s all.”

  “He’ll have a bad day tomorrow,” Dallas said. Whenever he got in trouble, Dallas left a space or two in the book and filled them in later. The only way he had much luck with horses was to wait until after the race was over and then make the entry, usually in Benny D.’s name, or somebody who’d cover for him if push came to shove. But even this system wasn’t foolproof. A couple weeks before, Dallas had no sooner entered the unofficial winner on the books than an inquiry was posted and they ended up taking the bastard down. Anyhow, he didn’t do it very often. He’d saved John’s ass plenty in the last few months, and besides, John was loaded like a Greek.

  “I hope he has a rotten fuckin’ day,” Benny D. said. “What say you come back and work for me?”

  “Because you can’t keep your nose out of things. Like I’ve told you a thousand times.”

  “It’s my place, you knothead. I’m not supposed to come around my own place?”

  “No. You just screw things up.”

  “My mechanics answer to me,” Benny D. said testily.

  “And that’s how come I’m not your mechanic.”

  “You’d rather work for a prick like John—”

  “John’s all right.”

  “—than a buddy like me.”

  “I’m going home.”

  “Come have a drink,” Benny D. said.

  “I’m tapped.”

  “Me too. So what?”

  “All right, one drink. Let’s hit The Velvet Pussycat.”

  Benny D. frowned. “That fuckin’ place. I don’t know anybody there.”

  “We better get some money then,” Dallas said. They turned down the alley behind Harry’s. The Saunderses’ bedroom was on the second floor toward the back, and Harry’s sleepy face appeared at the curtained window a few seconds after Dallas began to bounce pebbles off the glass. “Harry,” Dallas shouted softly.

  “What?” Harry spit down at them.

  “Let me take fifty ’til tomorrow.”

  “Go to hell.” His face disappeared and the curtain fell back in place.

  “He’s pissed,” Benny D. said. “He went back to bed.”

  “Nah,” Dallas said, leaning against the dumpster. “He’s gone to get the fifty.”

  “Bullshit. He went back to bed.”

  “I’ll bet you the fifty.”

  Benny D. frowned and looked up at the black window. The alley was quiet. “You’re on. He’s dead asleep.”

  The window creaked open and, when the men looked up, bills were fluttering down out of the darkness—five tens, three of which they caught in the air. Benny D. climbed into the dumpster for a stray. He handed Dallas three tens. “I’ll give you the other twenty tomorrow. You buy the drinks. I hate that Velvet Pussycat anyhow.”

  Just then Wild Bill turned into the alley, walking toward them, and watching his own feet fall in front of him as if the surprise of seeing them perform so effortlessly was enough to absorb all his attention. At forty, he was a year younger than Dallas, though he looked like a man in his mid-fifties. He was bald, except for a ring of longish hair that began only a few inches above his ears, covering them and hanging over his shirt collar as well. His cheeks were sunken, as were his eyes. Wild Bill loped right by without looking up and inserted the key Harry had chained to his belt into the lock. The door opened and Dallas and Benny D. were alone again in the alley.

  “I wonder what the hell he’s doing out this time of night,” Dallas said.

  “If I was a farmer, I’d keep my calves indoors. I hear he don’t talk no more at all.”

  “Hasn’t said a word in three months, according to Harry.”

  “Better than that shit he used to come up with. That ‘oughta’ shit. Remember that?”

  By the time they got to The Velvet Pussycat, the place was hopping pretty good. At closing time the bartender stopped serving alcohol to those who didn’t want any more and kept on pouring for those who did. The owner had been to court half-a-dozen times for serving after-hours, and even paid several two-hundred-dollar fines. But for the fact he took in an easy five hundred between two and five, he probably would’ve stopped. A local band was rattling the windows. The lead singer had shoulder-length hair, and Benny D. glowered at him. “Some f
uckin’ place this is.”

  Dallas had never been there either. And though he thought he knew everybody in Mohawk, the place was mobbed with strangers. John had beat them out there and, dancing with some woman who wasn’t his wife, waved at Dallas and Benny D.

  “How much you want to bet he never even buys us a drink,” asked Benny D.

  “He’s tight,” Dallas said, “as a rabbit’s ass.”

  “How much you figure he took us for tonight?”

  “He’s going to pay tomorrow. His luck’s already changed and he doesn’t know it.”

  “That doesn’t help me,” Benny D. said sadly. He ordered scotches for himself and Dallas and sent a round over to John and his bimbo.

  “I hope you won’t try to shame him,” Dallas said. “He’s a lawyer and we only got fifty bucks.”

  “What good is he?”

  Dallas explained how John had helped him beat a DWI a few months ago, but Benny D. wasn’t listening. A young waitress had come up to the cocktail station and was emptying lime sections and maraschino cherry stems and soaked cocktail napkins into the small trash bucket on the floor. She was working without a brassiere, and every time she bent over, Benny D. did too. Not that he really needed to. Dallas could see everything perfectly from two stools down. He let his story trail off. When the girl walked away, Benny D. turned to him. “Who’s she?”

  “Somebody’s daughter.”

  “Mmmm. And all growed up. Save my seat. I got to pee.”

  When the band stopped, John came over and bought a drink. “Remind me to take you shopping sometime,” he said, running his index finger under Dallas’s shirt collar. “What’s with you and Benny D.?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Nothing,” John said.

  “No what?”

  John shrugged. “He comes up with a lot of winners is all.”

  “He knows horses.”

  “Nobody knows horses,” John said.

  “You don’t,” Dallas admitted. “I save your ass three or four times a week. I’m getting sick and tired, now that I think about it.”

  John held up his hand. “Don’t get sore. It’s funny how your pal wins all the time is all.”

  “I don’t want to hear it.”

  “If he stays lucky, I’m going to have to cut you loose.”

  “I’m gone.”

  “Don’t get sore, we’re just talking here.”

  “Fuck you.”

  Benny D. came back from the men’s room and eyed the bar. “Don’t tell me this stiff actually bought a drink,” he said.

  “I don’t like you, Benny,” the lawyer said.

  “Well, break my fuckin’ heart,” Benny D. said. “That sure is a nice shirt. Won’t it stay buttoned?”

  “Unload the guy,” John said to Dallas. “Don’t hang around with him.”

  “Thanks for the drink,” Dallas said. “You seen my sister-in-law around?”

  “Not lately,” John said. “Her kid’s sick or something.”

  “I’ll have another drink,” Benny D. told the bartender. “On this gentleman, the one with the hairy chest and the fish hooks in his pockets.”

  “I don’t like you, Benny,” John said.

  “What’s wrong with the kid?”

  “I don’t know. Leukemia or something.”

  When the lawyer raised his glass, Dallas hit him, and suddenly John looked like somebody had swabbed him with a brush full of red paint. One large piece of glass lodged in his upper lip just beneath his nose. He wobbled, but instead of falling down brushed Dallas aside so he could look at his face in the mirror above the bar. Only a few people had seen what happened.

  “Jesus,” John said reverently, touching the piece of glass in his lip, lifting his chin to better see the blood running down his neck and into his open necked shirt.

  “Allow me,” Benny D. said, pulling the glass fragment out of the upper lip.

  “Ahhh!” John gasped.

  “All better?” Benny handed him a swatch of cocktail napkins.

  The bartender was now looking in horror at John.

  “You’re a witness,” John said. Several other people nearby had already turned their backs.

  “Sure,” the man said. “What happened?”

  “We better git,” Benny D. said when John disappeared into the men’s room. “There’s a phone in there.”

  “I got to go see somebody anyway,” Dallas said. He wished he’d waited until John put the glass down before hitting him, not that he could do anything about it now.

  “You can’t go over there at three in the morning,” Benny D. said once they were out in the parking lot.

  “Drive by,” Dallas said.

  They did, but the house was dark and Loraine’s car wasn’t in the drive.

  “You better stay with me tonight,” Benny D. suggested. “You’re liable to have visitors.”

  “Who cares?”

  “You will. In the morning.”

  “He had it coming.”

  “We’ll call my lawyer in the morning.”

  “Nah.”

  “Nah, your ass. You’re in trouble.”

  “Who cares?”

  At Benny D.’s place, Dallas took the couch. Benny D. strayed in, wearing his boxers and scratching himself. “How ’bout you come back and work for me? I’ll stay out of the garage.”

  “Sure,” Dallas said. “Why not.”

  44

  “Mather Grouse,” the voice in the dark had said, and for a moment, Randall Younger was breathless. There was only a quarter moon, no real light, and the voice was so near, so tangible, that Randall at first thought he himself had spoken, not the man sitting on the tire a few feet away. But then a cigarette tip glowed red and faded like a light from a faraway locomotive.

  “No,” Randall said.

  “I know,” the big man said. “I know your name, Randall Younger. And I also know who you are. A young Mather Grouse, that’s who.”

  “You told me that once before,” Randall said. He dropped the roach and screwed it into the moist earth with his shoe. Rory Gaffney waved his cigarette, leaving a trail, a red-white smear in the air.

  “A young Mather Grouse.”

  “He was afraid of you,” Randall said suddenly, surprising himself.

  “He didn’t have no need,” Rory Gaffney said. “No need for friends to fear one another.”

  That sounded too much like a question to be true. And yet, Randall knew, it couldn’t be entirely false either. He got to his feet. “My grandfather wasn’t your friend.”

  “No,” Rory Gaffney admitted, as if there were no contradiction. “Mather Grouses can’t have no friends. Can’t fight, can’t talk, can’t fuck. Not really.”

  No, Randall thought, but not because we don’t want to. It’s because our minds keep drifting from the fighting and the fucking, always back to the me—what about me, is this a me I can live with, that I can suffer people to see, that I can suffer myself to see. His grandfather had felt all of this, surely. All Mather Grouses felt it; the same perverse self-consciousness that had driven Randall into the old hospital that day. Concern for Wild Bill Gaffney had come later, after everyone had told him why he had done it and he had believed them. He had been fearless, selfless, they said, never suspecting that what had pushed him forward through the falling debris was in fact fear. Fear that someone would witness him standing there and know he had done nothing.

  He smiled at his self-consciousness now, but at the time it had seemed as if the whole scene had been staged as a test for one Randall Younger. The rest of humanity amounted to little more than a realistic backdrop. No one else had any obligation to enter the crumbling building, the hundreds of people girding it were not on trial. Randall scarcely cared about these props, but would conceal from them at any cost that he was part of their cowardly brotherhood. Of all the people in the world, he had thought, his grandfather would’ve suspected the truth, and when he didn’t, Randall had doubted his own conclusions. Maybe
it hadn’t been fear. Maybe what the people said was true. He entertained this possibility for years, until the voice said “Mather Grouse” and the cigarette glowed red in the dark.

  He could see clearly now, his eyes had adjusted. There was a fifth of whiskey nestled in the other man’s groin. “He didn’t have no reason to be afraid, though.”

  “Then why was he?”

  The cigarette inscribed a long arc into the trees, and Rory Gaffney took a swig from the bottle.

  “You and my granddaughter hitting it off pretty good?”

  “That’s a change of subject.”

  “Young girls today don’t never say no,” Rory Gaffney mused. “Your granddad, he’d of worried about it. He was that sort. The same with the leather we took. He figured it was stealing. We never could get him over the worrying.”

  Randall took in what the other man was saying, but slowly. This is what I have come back to learn, he thought mechanically, outside himself, watching himself learn. His stomach churned suddenly, and he tasted something vile on the back of his tongue. Remember this taste, he told himself, learn it. “No,” he heard himself say. “My grandfather was no thief. He’d have starved first.”

  Rory Gaffney nodded. “Starved is just what he would of done. It’s what we all would of done if a skin hadn’t got itself misplaced now and then. And not just us, either. Wives and kids along with us. What the hell were we but family men? What was your granddad?”

  Randall swallowed hard as an alternative to spitting into the dirt at their feet, but the taste didn’t go away.

  “No man was more a family man than Mather Grouse. Nobody in Mohawk was good enough for that mother of yours. My poor boy was sweet on her, like all the rest.”

  There was an edge to the man’s voice, and Randall guessed that Rory Gaffney, too, was tasting something nasty when he dredged up the yellow past. “Ask your mother about my poor boy some day.”

  Inside the trailer, the baby cried just once, then both men listened to the crickets.

  “I understood your granddad. A man gets a little crazy over his own, especially when she’s a girl and prettier than anybody ever saw. Who wouldn’t a wanted her for hisself?”

  Randall started to speak, but couldn’t.

 
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