Mohawk by Richard Russo

  “I would report him to the umpire,” he remembered Mather Grouse telling Price, who had smiled indulgently. Even as a boy, Randall knew his grandfather’s solution was naive, that for such a philosophy to work you’d need an umpire for every player, and the umpires would have to be different in kind than the men they stood in judgment of. But he admired his grandfather’s way, the purity, order and generosity of it. But in the end, he reckoned that Mather Grouse had no more faith in umpires than Price. While Randall believed little of what Rory Gaffney told him, there was no doubt that Mather Grouse had known perhaps all there was to know about his tormentor, yet had done nothing. Randall hated to think the explanation was simple fear. More likely, Mather Grouse had realized the necessity of living in the world as you found it. He remembered his grandfather’s advice about Billy Gaffney, how as a boy he had been disappointed in his grandfather’s too-easy conclusion that nothing could be done for the unfortunate. How strange that had sounded, coming from a man who claimed to rely on umpires.

  Suddenly it was daylight and thunder rocked the van before darkness could settle in again. Randall consulted his watch. He shouldn’t have to wait long. The old man wouldn’t expect him back until morning and was probably in bed already. Randall would, however, wait for the storm to pass. If it awakened the old man and he looked outside to see the van in the drive, it was all over. The other sticky point was the phone tip; Randall would have to drop a dime somewhere. If the girl was asleep when he got back, he’d call from the trailer. Otherwise, a public phone. But she probably would be asleep, and her phone was in the front room. This wasn’t a great plan, maybe, but it was simple.

  When the rain broke, it hit the truck like a shower of stones, streaming down the windshield in a thick sheet. Randall tried the wipers, but they were useless. The town had disappeared below, swallowed whole by the storm.

  He couldn’t tell just how long he’d slept, though it couldn’t have been much more than half an hour. The rain was still coming down, but not so angrily, and the windshield wipers were suddenly adequate to the task. But Mohawk still was nowhere in sight.


  The rain had been falling for quite some time before Anne heard it. As far as she was concerned, it could rain for forty days and forty nights. The streets could become rivers, and the rivers could rise and rise. The creaking of her father’s house in the gusting rain gave the impression that it might already be floating away, arklike. To hell with two-by-two this time, Anne thought. This time He means business.

  The flashlight lay where she dropped it, and eventually she picked it up. To remain aloft in the raging storm was foolish and self-indulgent. She got to her feet and ran her fingers through her hair, which since she had rested her head against the sloping roof was wet. Shining the flashlight along the beams, she discovered that a large portion of the ceiling was glistening. The water ran in tiny rivulets, a pool was forming beneath the metal fusebox.

  Once downstairs, Anne dried her hair with a towel and watched the wallpaper grow dark high up in the corners near the already-wrinkled ceiling. This, then, was how the quarrel with her mother would end. Even Mrs. Grouse, so adept at sidestepping reality, would be forced to come to terms. Before long her own wallpaper would darken and wrinkle, and in time she’d understand. In time. That was the key. To rationalize reality took time.

  In the end, Mrs. Grouse would construct a myth. In the dead of winter, during the Great Ice Storm, a limb from the Grand Oak had fallen, damaging the perfect roof. An act of God even Mather Grouse could not have provided against. The best thing for Anne to do would be to sow the seeds of this myth tonight, then stand aside and watch for signs of growth from a safe distance. So far as she knew, her mother had the money. She always had saved nickels and dimes, and now, living on her husband’s slender pension, she still was probably saving them. Well, the rainy day had come.

  Back in bed, Anne reset her clock. The yellow patch of light had reappeared on the house next door, which meant that her mother had not yet fallen back asleep. Morning would be soon enough to broach the subject of the roof, bring her mother upstairs and quietly summarize the evidence, the facts of the matter. It was still raining, but the thunder rumbled a good way off.

  She didn’t hate him, of course. But neither could she adore him any longer. She realized now that in her own way she too had canonized Mather Grouse. She and her mother simply worshiped different images. To Mrs. Grouse he had been provider, man of duty, man of honor, man of quiet reverence. To Anne he was the explorer, man of letters, inventor and more, all in the disguise of the humble leather-cutter. In his gentle ridicule of the clergyman’s Sunday sermons she had seen a real blasphemer, undaunted by the traditional Christian bribes for obeisance. When times were tough and he was without work, she had always imagined that her father was being punished for something courageous—trying to organize his fellow workers, perhaps, or refusing to compromise the standards of his craft. In the end, Mather Grouse had been neither her mother’s meek, dutiful conformist nor her own Prometheus. He was just a man who had put on the best roof he could afford, and now it needed replacing. He had been afraid, and she had seen the fear in his eyes the afternoon she breathed life back into him. Probably she had always been aware of his fear, rage, anguish and disappointment, though she hadn’t allowed him these because she had counted on him to rescue her from her own.

  She wondered if her mother was thinking about him in the bedroom below. That she hadn’t turned out the light was odd.

  Anne got up again and pulled on her robe. The flat downstairs was dark, except for the light in the bedroom. “Mother?” Anne said. The living room door was not completely closed, and a cool breeze riffled the curtains. It was still raining, but a sliver of moon had appeared between the clouds, enough to illuminate the street. Mrs. Grouse, dressed in her thin housecoat and slippers, was at the foot of the porch steps, slashing the ground with a long-handled ice-chopper. Clumps of earth had been cut from the lawn and now lay askew on the sidewalk. The old woman’s slashing seemed only to have stirred the worms into a frenzy, and though she halved and quartered some, the only visible effect was to increase the number of glistening, writhing coils underfoot. “I don’t want them here,” Mrs. Grouse cried as her daughter gently guided her back up the porch steps. “I don’t want—”

  “I know, Mother,” Anne said. “I know.”


  The rain had the curious and unanticipated effect of altering Randall Younger’s purpose. He had devised the plan the very night that Rory Gaffney had offered him two hundred dollars to take the van down the line. The symmetry was appealing, and Randall felt this was exactly the sort of thing his grandfather might’ve done had there been only him and no wife or daughter to worry about. But now, as Mather Grouse’s grandson sat high up in Myrtle Park, Mohawk invisible below, it suddenly seemed to Randall that his attempt to pay Rory Gaffney back for tormenting his grandfather was childish. He even doubted it would’ve received his grandfather’s blessing, this dishonest act perpetrated against a dishonest man. It amounted to doing what Price had recommended, using his spikes with deadly efficiency in order to keep the game honest—except that the game was over, lost long ago, one of the contestants dead.

  When the rain let up and the streetlamps of town began to sparkle, Randall backed the van onto the macadam and headed out of the park. Though it was late, he felt certain his mother was awake. He hadn’t even been over to see her since moving in with the girl. Now he knew that he was going to leave Mohawk, probably for good, almost certainly in the morning, after telling Rory Gaffney that he was right about Mather Grouse’s grandson. And if Randall stayed much longer, the draft board would tire of writing letters, and if they came looking, as eventually they surely would, they’d find him.

  To tell his mother what he was doing with his life seemed imperative, but he couldn’t and he knew she didn’t expect it of him. Going to jail was hardly productive; he wasn’t, it now seemed, quite that idealistic. O
f course, he could go down to the draft board and make a deal. Given his race, intelligence and skills, there was a good chance he’d end up holding a typewriter-ribbon instead of an M-16. It was the Boyer Burnhoffers whose destiny it was to wake up dead one morning five thousand miles away from the friendly base of Nathan Littler’s statue. The Randall Youngers were molested with haircuts, but did all right otherwise.

  But he wasn’t all that pragmatic, either. Which left Canada or the open road, and the latter was more appealing. Randall liked the fact that his was a sizable country, large enough to stay lost in without exactly running away. There was enough Mather Grouse in him not to like the idea of flight. On the other hand, no law obliged you had to have a permanent address, or even a forwarding one. In Mohawk he no longer had any obligations that he could think of.

  There was the girl, but he had never misled her. B.G. was no worse off for having known him. Nor any better off, he had to admit. She knew, now that he thought about it, what he was going to do before he did. Leaving town, he would disappoint people—Harry and The Bulldog, even the ladies he made salads for—but they wouldn’t be hurt. He had already hurt his mother by dropping out of the university, but he doubted that dropping out of Mohawk would strike her as tragic or even regrettable. It would be months before his father noticed. Who else was there to consider?

  He pulled up at the intersection of Mountain and Fifth just as his mother’s bedroom window went dark. The storm was spent, though the gutters were still running fast and deep. With the window down, the air smelled sweet and cool as fresh earth. Perhaps a sound caught Randall’s attention, but just as he thought there’s no one else a solitary figure belied him on the curb across the street, almost invisible against the dark line of trees. Randall pulled the van alongside, and said “Get in.”

  Wild Bill did as he was told. His scraggly hair was matted, his clothes heavy with water. The expression on his face implied he had just seen wild and miraculous things, and he shook all over. “Roll up the window if you’re cold,” Randall suggested, but he didn’t respond. Shivering violently, he craned his neck far out the window to catch a last glimpse of Mather Grouse’s home before it disappeared.


  After swinging his heavy legs out of bed, Rory Gaffney sat still until the trailer settled. He was wearing nothing but a grayish T-shirt. The girl had drawn the covers up over her own nakedness and turned away from him. He had used Randall’s key, then pulled the chain lock off the wall. The baby was asleep, and putting up a struggle wouldn’t have changed the outcome. Rory Gaffney studied her back for a minute, till his attention was distracted by a glow outside the curtains. He listened, but heard no motor. “Don’t be like that, young ’un,” he said. “This is old news.”

  She didn’t say anything at first, and when she did speak it was to the wall. “Things are different now. I told you.”

  Rory Gaffney stepped into his shorts and arranged himself in them carefully, as if placing a bird in a nest. “Things aren’t different. They’re always the same.” Then he added, “Thank God.”

  “Don’t talk about that. If there was one, he’d of settled with you a long time ago.”

  “That’s where you’re wrong. I’m made in His image, so I don’t blame myself.” He zipped his fly by way of punctuation and pulled his shirt from the tangle of bedding. “Who gave you this trailer to live in when you was swelled up like a balloon and no husband and no place to go?”

  Tucking in his shirttail, the old man went to the window and pulled back the curtain. The rain had slowed to a drizzle.

  “He’ll take me away from here if I ask him.”

  Now she had rolled over and was looking at him. Without bending over he pushed his feet into leather moccasins.

  “Sure he will,” the old man said. “Admires the hell out of you, he does. Plans to marry you. Which is how come he give me the keys to the trailer and told me I could keep you company.”

  He took the keys out of his trouser pocket and tossed them to her.

  “You don’t really think I’d believe any thing you said.”

  “Don’t believe me. Tell him all about it.”

  “I won’t have to. He’ll smell you on the sheets.”

  “Then change ’em.”

  “We could put you in jail,” she said, as if unsure.

  “Nah,” he said. “I didn’t force my way in here, and you didn’t put up no fuss. At least no more’n usual. Besides, who’d believe you and professor longhair?”

  “I know somebody they’d believe. Your own brother. He’s in love with me, in case you don’t know. Everybody down to the diner says so.”

  “Wrong again,” he said. “He loves me, the dumb fuck. Always has. Besides, people don’t tell. Too embarrassed. They look at guys like me and see theirselves. They’ll squeal on some guy that robs a bank, maybe, because they can’t imagine doing it. But what we just done is what all of them are thinking about doing every time they look at a girl like you. I’m just them, and nobody rats on theirself.”

  “The whole world isn’t like you,” said the girl.

  “Enough of it.” He ran his fingers through his hair and stooped to examine himself in the mirror. On the way out, he peered into the darkness of the child’s room.

  The girl sat up in bed. “Get,” she said. “I may not be able to keep you out of here, but that’s one room you don’t go in ’less you want to wake up with a slit throat some morning.”

  “The way you talk,” he said, grinning over his shoulder. “Cover yourself. I’m too old for thinking about double headers.”

  He shut the door behind him. The rain had stopped, but the breeze blew heavy drops from the trees overhead, hitting the ground at the old man’s feet like tiny grenades. The air was fresh after the storm, and Rory Gaffney felt freshened as well. On nights like this, it was good to be alive. Of course, it always was good to be alive, but these nights he could see himself living to a hundred.

  It was roughly fifty yards through the trees to the house. He’d left a light on in the kitchen to see by, but when he started up the path, something passed between him and the yellow window. “Who is it?” Rory Gaffney said, feeling a flicker of fear. Then, “Oh, it’s you.”

  The first bullet caught him in the shoulder and spun him around as if he’d been grabbed from behind. He regained his balance and looked at his ruined shirt. “What—” he began, but his voice was stopped by two sharp explosions and he staggered back toward the trailer. The impetus flung him off the path, but he kept running through the thick underbrush anyway. By the time he got to the trailer, everything was going black. Even before he hit the door face first and slumped into it, his knees resting on the cinder block, he suspected that he wouldn’t live to a hundred. And by the time the girl inside could get to the door that his solid body had buckled, he was dead.


  Randall drove past the diner, but there were no lights upstairs or down and he didn’t want to drop Wild Bill off in his present state. Randall hadn’t expected him to speak. For years now he hadn’t. But huddled in the corner of the van, shivering like a dog that’s misbehaved, Bill looked even more pitiful than usual. “We’ll get some coffee,” Randall said. “Then I’ll take you home.” Wild Bill showed no sign of having heard. He was staring straight ahead, but whatever he saw was coming from inside.

  Main Street glistened beneath the street lamps. Though the rain had ceased, Randall kept the wipers on, reassured by their gentle rhythm. “You’re cold,” he said, though the air after the storm was clear and still warm.

  The closer they got to the outskirts and the Gaffney house and trailer, the more Wild Bill shook, his shoulders hunched up beneath his ears, his hands clenched prayer-fashion over his groin. “Almost home,” Randall reassured him. “We’ll get you taken care of.”

  His companion seemed far from comforted, and if they hadn’t been so close, Randall would’ve pulled over. When they turned into the drive and something flashed in front of the van’s he
adlights, Wild Bill howled in panic. Randall hit the brake just as Rory Gaffney rammed the side of the trailer so hard that it rocked. Bill lunged forward, his head striking the windshield, then sat back dazed, fingering the knot that immediately started forming on his brow.

  Randall got out of the van. Rory Gaffney had hurtled in front of the van so suddenly that he hadn’t been able to make out who it was. Now the body lay crumpled and still near the cinder block step, its back to the van’s headlights. There was a large dent in the trailer door, which had sprung inward from its hinges, then jammed on the carpet. Inside, the baby was crying, the only sound besides the water dripping from the trees. Randall waited for the man to get up off the ground. Utterly still, he looked like a big pile of someone’s dirty wash left outside a laundromat. Randall approached cautiously. Only when he saw the blood smear on the caved-in door did he begin to guess, and he wasn’t sure the dead man was his grandfather’s tormentor until he rolled him onto his back.

  “Dead,” said a voice a few inches away. The trailer’s sprung door left a gap about three inches wide between the door and the frame. Behind it, on her knees, was B.G., and Randall could see she was naked.

  Rory Gaffney was blood from shoulders to groin. “Yes,” Randall said, stepping back. The headlights illuminated the old man’s face, a mask of horror and perplexity.

  “Good,” the girl said. “You love me, then. I didn’t know.”


  The baby had stopped crying, and a sudden gust of air shook a shower from the trees arching overhead. Randall could see he had blood on him from touching the dead man. “Call the police,” he said.

  “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll tell ’em it was me. He had it coming. I’ll say it was self-defense.” He could see that in the split second it took to invent the lie, she had adopted it as the only reality.

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