Mohawk by Richard Russo

  “No,” he said, but she was gone. Then he heard her dialing the phone in the living room. At the same moment he became aware of the policeman standing a few feet away, just outside the focused headlights. The gun in his hand was pointed at the ground. “Step away,” Officer Gaffney said. “Don’t touch my brother. My brother.”

  Randall was quick about it.

  “This is wrong,” said Officer Gaffney. “All of it. I know wrong when I see it, and this was all wrong from the beginning. I tried to tell him. All those years and all of it wrong. Not just him. The two of us. We never did nothing our whole lives that wasn’t wrong.” He raised the revolver and aimed it at Randall. “This here will be wrong, too.”

  As the policeman spoke, Randall became aware, somewhere on the periphery of his conscious thought, that a door on the van had opened and closed again. Gaffney had sighted Randall’s middle along the gun barrel, then looked up, as if assailed by a sudden doubt. His sad expression was suddenly transformed into something more like fear, and the gun wavered. If he pulls the trigger now, Randall thought, astonished at his own objectivity, he’ll miss me.

  “I warned you. Keep him away from me. Tell him to shut up!”

  Wild Bill had stepped in front of the headlights and become an approaching silhouette.

  “Make him!” Officer Gaffney screamed.

  “Stop,” Randall shouted, but Wild Bill didn’t appear to hear or notice either of them. In the glare of headlights he stalked toward them on fire. It occurred to Randall that he could step between the gun and the man it was now fixed on, but in the time he took to decide not to the gun roared twice, then clicked several more times. As Randall drove forward, the revolver sighted him again, and he distinctly heard a click before burying his shoulder in the policeman’s soft belly. Both of them went down. As Randall got to one knee, he caught a glimpse of Wild Bill, still in silhouette, bending over his father. Then the shots had missed, Randall thought, before Officer Gaffney’s revolver, swung like a club, found his right temple.


  Cool. The sensation was enough to fix on. Lovely, like diving into a flooded quarry on a hot day. Maybe, Randall thought, I am underwater. If so, he made a mental note not to stay down too long or he’d … what? Something was bound to happen if he stayed down too long, but he couldn’t think.… The cool moved to the back of his neck. Drown, that was it. If he stayed down too long he’d drown. He kicked toward the surface.

  “Sit still,” the girl’s voice spoke to him from somewhere.

  “Save me,” he tried to say, but only gurgled.

  “Don’t,” she said, closer now.

  He opened his eyes, then shut them against the bright lights. “Off,” he croaked, and the girl went away. Suddenly it was dark and he opened his eyes again. He wasn’t underwater. The trailer was there and, far away among the trees, the yellow window of the Gaffney house. Something was missing, he reminded himself, something important. Rory Gaffney. Rory Gaffney was missing. No body in front of the door. One was slumped and twisted up against a tree, though. Randall couldn’t see the face, which was turned away. He didn’t have to. Somewhere, a siren whined.

  When Randall struggled onto all fours, the girl at first tried to prevent him from standing, then helped. To get him on his feet took a long time, and he couldn’t have remained upright without her. “You shouldn’t,” she said. “Your head … they’ll be here in a minute.” It now seemed to Randall that there were several sirens, some close, some miles away, from all different directions. He saw that the damp rag she’d been using to bathe his head was bloody. So was the policeman slumped against the tree. So was the door of the trailer and the cinder block. Randall checked again to make sure that Rory Gaffney had not reappeared. “Bill …” he started.

  The revolver lay on the ground a few feet from the policeman. So, Randall thought, he hadn’t dreamed the dead man. “Help me,” he said, not knowing what he meant, and wanting to cry because he didn’t.

  One of the many sirens had now drawn close, and bouncing headlight beams reflected halfway up the trees from the street below. When the cruiser pulled up next to the van, Randall and the girl were again blinded, and he briefly lost consciousness. He came to, still on his feet, a moment later. One young policeman was pointing a gun at Randall, and the other, who couldn’t have been more than a year or two older than Randall, stood over the dead man, his arms hanging limply at his sides. “His face,” he said to his partner. “Look at the look on his face.”

  “Call it in,” said the other. “Step away, miss.”

  “He’ll fall. He’s hurt.”

  “Drunk, you mean.”

  “No. Come look at his head.”

  “I’m staying right here, and you’re staying right there.”

  His partner hadn’t budged. “Look at his goddamn face,” he said.

  The radio in the police car barked off and on. Randall still heard sirens, but they were fading. “Call!” said the man with the gun. His partner finally got into the car and rolled up the window as if he were embarrassed about what he had to say and didn’t want anyone to hear, not even his partner.

  Randall felt himself slip in and out of awareness. The policeman with the gun was now looking at the trailer door. The streaks of blood had dried brown, but there was no doubting what they were. The policeman looked first at the door, then at the dead officer twenty yards away at the treeline. “Jesus,” he said.

  His partner was a long time in the car, and looked disgusted and scared when he finally returned. “We won’t be getting no help.”

  The policeman lowered the gun and turned. “Why the hell not?”

  “Everybody’s up to the hospital. The son-of-a-bitch is burnin’ down. I can’t raise nobody.”

  “So what the hell are we supposed to do?”

  “We could toss ’em in the car and head over there ourself. Captain’s there. Everybody’s there.”

  “What about Gaff?”

  “Gaff’s dead.”

  “But I mean, Jesus Christ—”

  “We should go to the hospital,” the girl said. “My boyfriend needs a doctor.”

  The two young policemen looked at each other. Clearly they were thankful for advice. Anybody’s. “Go look at his head,” said the policeman with the gun, again waving it at Randall. “And stay off to the side.”

  The young man approached Randall as he would a snake. Randall managed to stay on his feet until the young cop had a good look. Then his legs went. Next thing he knew, they were all in the back seat of the moving vehicle. Himself. The girl. The baby. The two policemen were up front, the steel grill in between providing their security. The driver braked suddenly to avoid something in the road. “What the hell?” he said.

  “Drunks,” said his partner.

  “Didn’t look it.”

  “Keep going,” the younger cop said. “We already got trouble enough.”


  All in all, the fire at the new hospital is disappointing. From the outset it’s obvious that despite the rather impressive columns of flame, the firemen will soon contain the blaze in a single wing. The drive has been barricaded too far up for spectators to enjoy the full effect. Inevitably they draw comparisons between this blaze and the razing of the Nathan Littler, which everyone agrees was high drama. There is little danger here, since the fire broke out in the maintainance wing.

  The crowd can only encourage the flames to leap into the night sky. Their Saturday night has been prolonged, and they’re thankful for the diversion. Some have brought bottles. “Don’t let it go out ’til I get back,” people say, hurrying home to call friends and neighbors or to stock up. Within half an hour, their number has quadrupled and grown festive. The Velvet Pussycat has emptied out, and the other bars are closed. Some of those gathered had come with injuries, hoping to be sewn up and gauzed, but what they find is even better. Bottles of cheap whiskey circulate and their complaints are forgotten.

  When the two policemen on the barricades
are called away, a phalanx of drunks picks up the sawhorses and moves forward with them, ropes and all, stopping only when the breeze shifts and brings them a blast of heat from the fire. Women hike their skirts and climb onto the shoulders of their men for a better view, which also gives some boys a better view.

  A police car pokes slowly through the crowd, and the restraining ropes are lifted by two self-proclaimed valets who direct the driver with exaggerated, sweeping gestures. In the back seat sit a young woman with a child and a young man slumped over her lap. People peer in, hoping to identify them, but it’s dark and the riders too huddled.

  “What’s with them,” somebody asks.

  “None of your business,” says the driver. Then, to his partner, “Better lock up.” Once inside the ropes, the younger cop gets out and heads up the hill to find an officer who can tell him what to do.

  At this point a drum of something flammable ignites in the maintainance wing, and broken glass showers out into the night, all the way to the onlookers at the rear, who cheer enthusiastically. Somebody says it’s a shame the whole place doesn’t burn down; it was a piece of shit from the beginning, and the wiring contractor in particular belongs in jail. “Bullshit,” another man shouts. “Somebody set it. They got the bastards over there in the cop car.” This makes sense even to those who haven’t even seen the car, and the arson rumor itself lights up the crowd. “People coulda been killed,” calls an angry man with an open cut on his forehead. “They’ll get off,” says the woman riding his shoulders. “Some lawyer-sharpie will get ’em off.”

  Since there’s no one present to stop them, the barricades are again moved forward. The police car, which had been parked well inside, is now outside the ropes and swarmed. The young policeman, returning down the drive, mistakenly concludes that the cruiser has vanished, and hurries back to report its theft. When he fails to locate his partner, he realizes his error. The car wasn’t stolen. His partner’s just moved it, and perhaps has taken the prisoners downtown, which is what he had wanted to do in the beginning.

  “Send her down, David!” yells the fire chief, looking up at the sky. Rain clouds have rolled in, and the sliver of moon is gone.

  Several boys clamber atop the police car for a better view, and the still swelling crowd packs tightly around it. The car begins to rock, much to the delight of the boys on top. “Who is it?” yells the man with the bleeding forehead, his nose flattened against the rear passenger-side window. “Tell … us … your … names!” Somebody pulls up a brick and hands it to him, but he balks. Luckily, the man standing next to him, already the veteran of one fight tonight, has a heavily bandaged hand. “Here,” says the man with the bleeding forehead, handing him the brick. As it turns out, the bandaged hand that qualifies this one to break the glass disqualifies him from doing a good job of it. His grip on the brick is weak, and when it strikes the car window, the brick flips into the air, skitters across the roof of the car and disappears over the other side. No one over there can be made to understand the problem. A jovial group, they’re thoroughly content to rock the cruiser. And within five minutes, David sends her down. Everyone knows this signals the end of the party, and only the firefighters are happy about it. In a matter of minutes the streets adjacent to the hospital are jammed with horn-blaring cars.

  · · ·

  When there is excitement somewhere in a small town, much can happen elsewhere without attracting notice: Such is the immutable law of diversion. Only when the diversion is recognized for what it is are the more significant details—entirely overlooked at the time—recalled, and then only reluctantly, out of embarrassment. The morning after the fire at the Mohawk Medical Services Center, many remember seeing a dark figure struggling with what they had concluded was a drunken companion in his arms. But everyone had been hurrying toward the bright horizon in the southwest.

  The following morning, when that same horizon began to brighten truly, a milk truck labors up Steele Avenue hill, known a few years before as Hospital Lane. The nickname didn’t long outlive the old Nathan Littler. Now the hilltop is a seldom used parking lot, well paved but inconvenient to the Main Street businesses whose rooftops it overlooks. The driver of the milk truck is a man of local distinction. Nearly twenty years earlier, he was the driver whose truck killed Homer Wells, once his slide down the entire icy length of Hospital Hill was complete. Since that morning, the driver of the milk truck has given considerable thought to the notion of fate, and this morning, like most others, finds him with much on his mind. In fact, this morning’s run is to be his last. The Bronson Dairy is calling it quits, the victim of supermarkets, convenience stores and cardboard cartons.

  At the top of Steele Avenue, the truck shakes to a stop. In the center of the parking lot is a mound. The more the driver of the truck stares at it in the gray half-light of early morning, the more puzzled he becomes. For some things, it’s too small, and for others too large. Finally, the driver gets out and walks over to where Wild Bill Gaffney kneels, dead and cold, his arms locked in rigor mortis around his father, whose expression of mortification is later explained by many as the result of being dragged up Steele Avenue hill by a half-wit to a hospital that was demolished almost a decade before, as Wild Bill himself had good cause to remember.

  Harry Saunders, up early to open the diner, hears the sirens wail up Steele Avenue and feels ill. “You better get up there,” his first customer tells him, and so he goes, slower now than on the day the Nathan Littler came down. In the middle of the parking lot Harry sees a small circle of men in work clothes, who step aside when they see him. The grotesque mystery on the macadam holds no fascination for Harry, who goes white and immediately starts back down the hill. While the other men whisper in wonder of how a man with two holes in his chest had managed to carry a two-hundred-fifty-pound man up Steele Avenue hill, and why on earth he would’ve wanted to, Harry Saunders, as he stands before his grill, bacon spitting angrily, can only imagine the wonder and confusion of his good friend when he discovered himself mistaken and alone under the night sky in Mohawk.


  At the bar in Greenie’s were five men, along with another small group clustered around the shuffleboard machine. They all mumbled hellos to Dallas when he came in, but they weren’t the usual hellos and Dallas knew it. People had been acting peculiar all day, and whenever he entered a room he felt he was already the subject of conversation. Nothing malicious, of course, and he didn’t blame anybody. People just didn’t know how to behave in times like this, and he wouldn’t have either. Instead of joining the men at one end of the bar, he instinctively took the stool next to the one reserved for Untemeyer. It was a little after three-thirty, and the bookie showed up at four o’clock sharp.

  Woody brought Dallas a draft. “Anything I can do?” he said.

  “You can let me take four or five grand.”

  “Sure enough. I’ll just take it out of petty cash.” He paused. “Rudy hit the number yesterday.”

  Dallas shook his head. “Five hundred wouldn’t help, even if he still had the five hundred, and he wouldn’t be Rudy if he did.”

  “I’d give it to you, if I had it.”

  “I know that, Woody.”

  The bartender hovered, wondering how to start. Finally he said, “I never met your kid, but I don’t believe he done that. Where they got him?”

  “Up in the hospital, still. They haven’t even let his mother see him yet.”

  Benny D. came in and pulled out the stool next to Dallas, waving Woody away. “You’re something,” he said to Dallas.


  “Anybody else would be chasing me, but not Dallas Younger. I gotta chase him. He not only doesn’t bother to show up for work, he can’t even call to let people know where he’ll be.”

  “I’m right here.”

  “Asshole,” Benny D. took out a wad of bills and stuffed them in Dallas’s pocket. “It’s two grand, in case you’re wondering. Say thanks.”


/>   “You’re tough.”

  “I mean it. Thanks.”

  “I want it back someday. They set bail?”

  Dallas shook his head. “Ten grand is John’s guess.”


  “I got a thousand from a guy I know pretty good. Your two makes three. My ex-wife says she’s got seven hundred or so in a savings account.”

  “Rudy hit the number last night.”

  “So I heard.”

  “Probably back in the local economy by now. The kid got a lawyer?”

  “John said he’ll go see him, but I don’t know. He’s still pretty sore about his face.”

  “He’s an asshole. Let me have Dominic do it.”

  “I can’t pay him.”

  “You can work it out later. Dominic’s all right.”

  “Yeah, let’s do that.”

  When they finished their beer Benny D. left, passing the bookie on his way in. Untemeyer assumed his usual perch. “You picked a bad time,” he grumbled, brushing cigar ash off his sleeve.

  “When’s a good one?”

  “I’ve been taking a beating.”

  “You’ve been taking a beating for fifty years. I don’t need to hear about it.”

  “What do you need.”

  “A bundle. John says bail’ll be around ten grand.”

  “I hear he’s out of bookmaking.”

  “He had some tough luck.”

  Untemeyer nodded. “I figured he would. A man shouldn’t have more than one racket. I can spot you a couple grand if it’ll help.”

  “It would.”

  Untemeyer wrote out a check and, from habit, a small slip.

  Dallas’s pocket was getting thick, its bulge reassuring. “How the hell old are you anyway,” he asked.

  “Never mind. I’m not going to die before you pay up, so you can forget about that.”

  “Really. I’d just like to know.”

  “I’ll piss on your grave anyhow, so what’s the difference?” Greenie’s was filling up. “Go away. You’re bad for business, and I need a good day for once.”

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