Mohawk by Richard Russo

  Closing her eyes, she tracked the storm’s approach. The lightning registered no matter how tightly she clamped them shut. As the rumbling neared, the tree branch tapped more insistently. With any luck the storm would skirt town, but Anne had no faith it would. Once the rain started, everything would be fine. The dry electricity would wash deep into the earth. But first it had to rain, after all the howling wind and thunder. All right, the gods must’ve decided, cleanse them again. The hair along their forearms has been standing on end too long. Cleanse them one more time. Allow them to touch one another without fear.

  Even with her eyes closed, Anne sensed a subtle change in the house, and when she opened them, the patch of yellow light on the house next door was gone. So was the luminous dial on the clock beside her bed. The room was still. Anne got out of bed and went to the living room window, hoping to see nothing, the entire street cloaked in the storm’s blackness, but a light shined in the Millers’ front room across the street and another upstairs in the house two doors down.

  Anne cursed the house and pulled on her robe. Downstairs she found her mother sitting on the end of the sofa, staring out the front window at the deserted street. A flash of lightning froze the old woman in her seat, and she didn’t react when her daughter walked in with the flashlight. Out in the street the wind was swirling everything that wasn’t rooted; a lawn chair danced crazily up the hill, end over end. “I’m going up to the attic to change the fuse, Mother.”

  “Of course, dear,” her mother responded vaguely.

  “Did you hear me?”

  The old woman turned and stared at her blankly.

  “Where am I going?”

  Mrs. Grouse blinked.

  “To the attic. To change the fuse.”

  Mrs. Grouse smiled and went back to watching the street.

  At the attic stairway, Anne flipped the switch and, when the light didn’t come on, cursed her stupidity out loud. She followed the flashlight beam up the narrow stairs. Lightning illuminated the fusebox under the eave at the far end of the attic, next to the only window, which was banging madly. “Never touch this box,” her father had warned her when she was eight. He had discovered her one day going through the trunks in the attic that contained old clothes. “Never touch it.”

  She had waited for him to explain, of course.

  She was much older before he told her that merely touching the black box wouldn’t kill anyone, but insisted how important it was to be careful when changing the fuse.

  “But why’d you tell me that?” she wanted to know. Why let her think that death was close at hand, just up the stairs?

  “There are some things it’s wise to be scared of.”


  “Because they hold the power to destroy us.”

  “But I hate being afraid,” she said. “I’ve had nightmares about the box.”

  “Nightmares never killed anybody,” he said flatly. “If you hadn’t had bad dreams about the box, you’d have had them about something else.”

  Below the box was a small, wrinkled paper bag that contained the fuses. Anne took one out—it felt cool, almost moist, between her thumb and forefinger. She opened the door to the fusebox and shined the flashlight on the double row of copper-pronged switches, each with its little plastic handle. The main fuse was splotched black across the paper.

  Anne disconnected the switch and tapped the fuse with her forefinger before unscrewing it. She knew that once the copper switch was open, the box was safe; but her fear was far too ingrained for knowledge to count against it. Outside, the storm was suddenly quiet. Anne fitted the new fuse into the vacant slot. The fuse turned almost too easily, and she double-checked to make sure that it was screwed tight. All that was left to do was to throw the switch. Again she shined the light into the box so she could see to be sure that she had the switch by its plastic handle. When she pushed it forward, there was a sizzling sound and the attic was suddenly broad daylight. The clap of thunder that followed instantly drowned Anne’s scream of rage and fear, and at the precise moment when what was inside her became part of the ambivalent night, she realized for the first time how very much she hated her father.


  “Please,” B.G. pleaded. From the next room issued the baby’s cry, as if she knew the storm was coming. In the wind, the trailer crunched and popped like an empty aluminum can.

  “I won’t be long. I promise.” Randall drew the curtain back to look out into the dark. When the old man was home, the lights up at the house were visible through the trees, but now Randall Younger saw nothing but blackness and the reflection of his own drawn face.

  “Tell me what you talked about,” she said, fixing him when he turned around, her eyes small and frightened.


  “I woke up. I heard the two of you out there.”

  “We discussed my grandfather, if you’ve got to know.”

  “I don’t believe you.”

  They faced each other angrily.

  Randall looked away first. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

  “Don’t lie.”

  “Why should I leave you?”

  “Tell me what you talked about with him.” She fairly spit the last word.

  “My grandfather.”

  She looked away. The baby wailed louder in the next room. Randall consulted his watch. It was time, and he had made up his mind. “Look,” he said, “if I were splitting, would I ask to borrow your car?”

  In this there was an ironic truth, and it calmed her down a little. The husband who had abandoned her was just the sort to steal the car. Randall would be more likely to leave one by way of apology. “Stay,” she begged one last time.

  “You have to give me tonight,” he said. “It’s a matter of business.”

  “With him.”

  “Yes. All right. Yes.”

  “I won’t tell you why, but I want you to know I hate him.”

  “Good,” he said. “So do I.”

  He backed the VW down the drive and onto the macadam. The police car was parked down the block, and when Randall passed it the headlights came on and the car lurched forward. At the intersection Randall stopped at the sign, and the police car pulled up so close that its headlights disappeared from the rearview. Randall waited for a blip and the revolving lights, but nothing happened. When he pulled away, the cruiser surged steadily behind, as if in tow. Even when Randall sped up, it kept exact pace, no more than a few feet behind.

  When they came to the highway, Randall pulled over. So did the police car. Turning off the ignition, he rolled down the window and waited. The radio in the car behind barked and coughed. Finally, the door opened and Officer Gaffney, with some difficulty, got out. Even in the rearview Randall could see that he wasn’t in uniform, but rather in street clothes, except for the black revolver holstered to his hip. And even in the rearview he could tell he was drunk.

  Officer Gaffney leaned with both hands on the roof of the VW, almost as if someone had told him to spread ’em. For a long time he said nothing, just breathed heavily.

  “What,” Randall said finally.

  “Give him a message.”

  “Your brother?”

  “No. Him. You know who.”

  “No I don’t.”

  “Just do it,” the policeman said. “Tell him to stay away from my place. I’ll shoot him down like a dog.”

  Officer Gaffney’s eyes were red and wild.

  “All right. Sure.”

  “I don’t want him in my rooms. There’s nothing there for him. I won’t have him going through my things.”

  “I’ll tell him that.”

  “And tell him,” the policeman stopped, his chin dropping momentarily. “Just tell him to keep away. I know how he does it. I can follow his voice along the wall. Tell him I got it figured.”

  Randall promised he would.

  “All night,” Officer Gaffney said. “All night and no sleep. Listening to that oughta shit.” He took his revolv
er out and showed it to Randall. “Shoot right through a wall. Next time … right where the voice is … bang. No more oughta.”

  “I’ll make sure he understands.”

  Officer Gaffney put the gun away and straightened up. Randall couldn’t see his face. “He was dead. The walls were coming down. How come you couldn’t a just left him alone?”

  · · ·

  Rory Gaffney was waiting in the van at the end of the street. “You’re late,” he said when Randall pulled alongside.

  “I ran into a little problem.”

  “Since when is pussy a problem,” the old man said. “Stay close. We gotta get loaded before the storm breaks.”

  They turned down a one-way street, and when the van came to the end of the pavement it slowed but kept going along a dirt road that wound through the trees. This was a part of town Randall was wholly unfamiliar with. They crossed the Cayuga Creek on a narrow bridge and stopped by a hut just short of the railroad tracks. On the far side, the Tucker Tannery was silhouetted against the night sky. The wind was blowing so hard now that several small trees dusted the ground with their topmost branches. When he got out of the van, Rory Gaffney’s hair stood straight up like an angry gray flame. “Many a night your granddad and I crossed these tracks together, loaded down. The bastards never suspected us, either. Not their best men.”

  “You keep forgetting,” Randall said. “I don’t believe any of it, so why keep it up?”

  “I do lie something awful, don’t I? Not lie, really. It’s just the way things could of been. We should of been friends, him and me. I wanted it. We weren’t so different. It was just some little thing in him that couldn’t let go. Otherwise he’d of been one of the world’s great sinners.”

  Inside the shack were a press and several long tables piled high with leather. The windows were blackened and curtained so that light from the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling couldn’t be seen from outside.

  “You know how to get to White Plains without using the Thruway?”

  Randall said he did, and the two men began loading the van. The newly tanned skins had the same rich, almost overpowering scent he’d always associated with his grandfather. It was strongest when Mather Grouse came in at the end of the day, but he was never wholly without it. Though the two men worked quickly, methodically, Rory Gaffney showing no signs of fatigue despite his age, it took nearly half an hour to load the van. Some of the skins had been cut into gloves and stacked in boxes. There were jackets and coats too, complete except for linings and buttons. Still other skins bore only pattern markings.

  Once they were finished, Rory Gaffney gave him the keys to the van. “Careful,” he said. “The vehicle ain’t exactly mine. I’ll drop off the bug,” he said, holding out his hand for the keys.

  Randall held them out to him. “Your brother pulled me over tonight.”

  That brought the old man up short. “What?”

  “On the way over here. Which is why I was late.”

  “What the hell for?”

  “Just to tell me he’s hearing voices coming out of the walls. You want to know whose?”

  “I’ll handle him. You just drive. Carefully. You get pulled over now and you won’t have to worry about the draft.”

  “I’m not.”

  “Ahhh,” he said. “You just naturally like to hide out.”


  When the lightning strikes the top of what had once been the Montgomery Ward building two blocks from the diner, the thunderclap cracks several windows along Main Street, and Harry Saunders, at his wife’s insistence, gets up to check things out. Harry’s awake anyway. The Grotto was expensive to start up and isn’t close to paying for itself.

  “Is he back yet,” Harry’s wife asks when he returns.


  “Did you look in his room?”

  “I didn’t have to. He isn’t back yet.”

  “You shouldn’t let him go.”

  “How would I stop him? Lock him in his room?”

  “He wouldn’t do anything you forbid.”

  “I don’t have the heart. I won’t make this a jail. He’s been in jails.”

  “He could be getting in trouble.”


  “How can you be sure?”

  “Because I know where he goes.”

  His wife’s hair is aflame, bright red. “Where, then? Where does he go?”


  Near the outskirts of town on Kings Road, the thunderclap was less severe, though it shook the windows of the Wood home. Only old Milly was able to sleep out the storm. Dan and Diana didn’t even bother to turn on the bedroom light.

  “I can’t get her face out of my mind,” Diana said. “If a painter had been able to capture it.… I’ve never seen anything like it. For once I was happy to be childless.”

  Dan said nothing.

  “I’m sorry,” she said after a moment. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

  “I know what you meant.”

  “It’s just that the poor girl made me feel so strange … about us.”

  Dan looked over at her, so small inside the bedclothes, so physically like her mother. “How?”

  “I’m not sure I can explain. We regret the little things that don’t work out, but not the big things. Seeing that woman made me realize I never told you how sorry I was—I am … about everything.”

  “You make it sound like you were driving the car.”

  “I wasn’t thinking of that so much. I guess I’m sorry about Mother and the way things are now. Maybe about not turning out to be the kind of woman you needed me to be.”

  “You’ve been a perfect wife.”

  Their bedroom lit up and Diana waited for the thunder before continuing. “You needed someone to make you run like the wind.”

  “For that,” he said, “I have your Mother.”


  The trip from Mohawk to White Plains would’ve taken nearly four hours if Randall Younger had had any intention of completing it. He knew he didn’t even before he recrossed the one-lane bridge and brought the van out of the trees at the dark end of the one-way street. Off to the side of the cul-de-sac, the police cruiser was almost completely hidden in the trees. No one who wasn’t looking for it would’ve noticed. But Randall Younger was, and he wasn’t surprised when his headlights reflected something blue. There was no telling if Rory Gaffney had seen it when he emerged from the trees in the VW. Randall guessed he didn’t, since the bug’s headlights hadn’t come on until it was fifty yards up the street. Of course there was always the possibility that Rory Gaffney didn’t need to see, that the brothers were setting him up, though he doubted it. To have Randall arrested when he would immediately implicate the man who hired him made no kind of sense. Still, he didn’t understand something that was going on. He kept his eye on the sideview mirror, waiting for the cruiser to come to life. Only after three blocks did a single set of headlights switch on somewhere down the dark street, and from that distance Randall couldn’t be sure it was the police car’s. When he turned at the intersection, Randall tried to make out the car, but it was still too far back. He did, however, get a glimpse of Rory Gaffney’s pale face up against the window of the VW. He filled the small car so full that a white, fleshy arm spilled out the open driver’s side window.

  The VW stayed tight behind the van as far as the highway, where both vehicles stopped for the light. It was here, an hour earlier, that the policeman had pulled up behind the VW. Randall watched the sideview, but there were no lights behind him. On green the van turned right, the VW left toward town. Randall drove well below the limit and, when the bug’s tail-lights were red diamond points, pulled off onto the shoulder to wait. Back at the intersection, the police car slowed for the red light, then shot onto the highway in the same direction as the VW. Randall counted ten, then made a U-turn. He let several cars pass him for fear that a red light at the next intersection might stack up the VW, police car and van. When he got there, however
, neither the bug nor the cruiser was in sight.

  At the entrance to Myrtle Park, Randall turned the van up the steep grade. The high beams shot off into woods at each bend in the road, and twice they lit up bright animal eyes that seemed suspended in the air. At the summit of the park, Randall left the blacktop and steered carefully down a dirt path toward a clearing that overlooked Mohawk. The low ceiling of clouds seemed very close overhead and the air was thick with electricity.

  Turning off the ignition, Randall rolled down the passenger window for some air. He took off the work gloves he’d used to load the van, but was careful not to touch anything. The only prints on the van would be Rory Gaffney’s. From where he sat, it was possible to see the lightning gather around the town from all directions. Branches raked frantically at the sides of the van and the gusting wind stirred debris underneath. The concentration of lights below meant Main Street, and with that as a fulcrum Randall could gauge pretty accurately where his grandfather’s house was. One of the thousands of lights below would be his mother’s bedroom window. She had never told him she was terrified of electrical storms, it was just one of the things he knew—just like he’d known for many years that she was in love with a man in a wheelchair, her cousin’s husband. Things like that they’d never speak of. Not long ago he had entertained the possibility of asking her about Mather Grouse. Working as one, they might fit together all the pieces: what power Rory Gaffney had wielded over his grandfather, how they’d become such enemies, how Wild Bill figured in the scheme of things. Rory Gaffney had suggested he ask her about “his poor boy,” and perhaps for that reason he hadn’t, certain that Gaffney wouldn’t have offered if she knew anything. He couldn’t imagine how he would broach the whole subject with her. Your father, my grandfather … is what I remember true? Did he really stand more erect than other men? Did he mean what he said, or just say it?

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