Mohawk by Richard Russo


  “So,” Anne said, picking a particularly bright leaf off the skimmer, “I’m in the doghouse.”

  Dan Wood, who had listened to the story somewhat abstractedly, began stuffing the soggy leaves into the bag with a large scoop. “I’d like to sympathize, but you’re old enough to know better than to disobey your mother. Just who did you think you were, saving your old man’s life after you’d been expressly forbidden to?”

  “But I didn’t save his life, you see. The ambulance men get credit for that. What I get credit for is fracturing his jaw.”

  “Ah.”

  There were still plenty of leaves to skim, but Anne suddenly collapsed into a deck chair, letting the skimmer balance against one knee. “It’s funny,” she said. “When I was younger and things first started going wrong between my father and me, I had this daydream where I would rescue him from a burning house. I knew it was silly, but I indulged the fantasy all the time. He would be unconscious and I’d have to drag him out through the flames. Lord knows where Mother was when all this rescuing was going on.”

  “Dead, according to Freud.”

  “Oh, stop it.”

  Dan ducked the swatch of leaves she threw at him.

  “Anyhow, it turns out I got my wish. And do you know what I did when I saw him in the hospital the next morning? I apologized for fracturing his jaw.”

  “And so you’re ticked off at your mother.”

  Anne studied him, surprised by his tone, but he did not meet her eye. “What’s your point?”

  “No point. I just wondered about Mather’s opinion of the whole episode.”

  “He’s got a fractured jaw, remember?”

  “Mmmm,” Dan said. “You should get one of those drawing boards they have for kids. The kind you write a message on and then pull up the plastic sheet and the whole thing disappears. T-H-A-N-K-S, then zip—clean slate.”

  Anne glared at him until he apologized, then added, “Don’t go telling me things if you don’t want my goddamn opinion.”

  She did regret telling him. She might’ve guessed what his reaction would be. “It’s another of my idle dreams that you two will like each other one day.”

  They were talking directly to one another now, not looking away. “That’s like me dreaming about walking again.”

  “What’s wrong with that?”

  “Only everything.”

  “I don’t see why you and my father shouldn’t like each other. You’re a lot alike, when you think about it. For instance, you’re the two most bullheaded men I know.”

  “Excepting Dallas.”

  “Naturally,” she admitted. Her ex-husband. “Always excepting Dallas.”

  “Well,” Dan smiled. “I don’t much appreciate being called bullheaded. And I don’t like your father. Never have liked him, never will like him. And there’s nothing you can do to change my mind.”

  Anne couldn’t help grinning back at him, as always. They would be on the brink of a serious falling out when suddenly the danger would pass as if it had never existed—“like a fart in a gale of wind,” as Dan liked to say. He had a way of saying the most patently offensive things, plain or profane, without offending. A rare gift, she concluded. The other men in her life somehow always managed to offend even when they were tiptoeing.

  “Anyway,” Dan said, “I’m glad he’s better.”

  “He isn’t, really. The doctor says it’s just a matter of time before he has another attack. An oxygen tank in the house would help.”

  “How’s that a problem?”

  “I’m not certain. I’ve been instructed to butt out, though. Mother insists he’s too proud, but I suspect she’s the one. You know how she is about the house—the first set of slipcovers is to protect the sofa, the second set is to protect the slipcovers. An oxygen tank in the living room would be like admitting the unspeakable.”

  “Milly’s the same. We do nothing without permission. Di doesn’t even buy for our bedroom without consulting.”

  Dan wheeled along the deck from pile to pile, scooping leaves into the lawn bag. She knew she should help but suddenly felt leaden and stayed where she was, watching. She had once thought he’d never grow to fit the chair, and for the longest time after the accident she kept expecting him to get up out of it and trot away. But now the chair was part of him. His once trim abdomen was showing signs of a paunch. She knew he was drinking heavily, and while she didn’t blame him, thinking of him the way he had once been always brought her to the verge of tears. She felt them start to well up now and had to look away.

  “I used to look for little things to burn her up,” he said. “A couple years ago I ran across one of those little mechanical obscenities that works on a pulley. This little guy had a prick the size of a leg. Did lewd things with it when you pulled a string. Gave it to her on her birthday, all boxed up and wrapped nice.”

  The idea was very funny, and quickly Anne didn’t feel like crying any more. He was the same Dan. “I wish I’d been there.”

  “No you don’t. She went all gray and I thought ‘Uh-oh.’ Diana was fit to be tied, of course, and I’ve been a good boy since then, more or less. I guess there’s no good reason to torment old women.”

  “Remind me again why they’re supposed to torment us.”

  Before he had a chance there was a whistling sound, something cracked, first on the pool deck, then against the metal shed. Dan wheeled over quickly and picked up the golf ball. “Good one,” he said, holding it up for Anne’s inspection. “Titleist. Just missed you, too.”

  Opening the door to the shed, he deposited the ball in a bucket that must’ve contained a hundred others. “When I get out of this chair I’m going to take up golf again,” he said. “It’s a shame people don’t lose clubs.”

  “You’ve decided to go ahead and try the operation?”

  “What the hell. It’s only money, and according to the quack-of-the-month there’s a chance. You think I’m crazy?”

  “No. I don’t.”

  “Neither do I. My mother-in-law says I’m crazy. But since she plans to inherit all this when I’m gone, she dislikes my spending money.”

  “Hey!” called a voice that belonged to the head of somebody just tall enough to see over the top of Dan’s redwood fence. “Golf ball come through here?”

  “Nope,” Dan smiled cheerfully.

  “Sure.” The man frowned, then muttered, “Brand new Titleist.”

  “What would I be likely to want with a golf ball?”

  The man noticed the chair then and went pale. “Jesus, Mac, I’m sorry.”

  “Forget it,” Dan said. “Drop in some day. We’ll have lunch.”

  When the man disappeared, the patio door slid open and Di was out on the deck. “Stealing golf balls again?”

  “You bet,” her husband admitted. “What’s more, I have an accomplice for once.”

  “God will get you.”

  “He already has.”

  “Lunch is on the table. Bring your accomplice.” Diana surveyed the yard. “Nice job, by the way.”

  Since Anne had stopped skimming, the pool had filled again with blown leaves. When the door closed behind her cousin, Anne noticed that the air was suddenly chill. Nothing was more unrelenting than a Mohawk winter, and Anne wasn’t sure she was equal to another one, not this year. “Shall I give you a push?” she suggested.

  “Provided you turn me around first. You’ll notice I’m headed for the water at the moment.”

  Anne lifted the heavy, leaf-filled bag and set it on his lap. Near the door were three large plastic trash cans, and Anne wondered if Di had to lug these all the way out to the curb herself. “Di looks exhausted,” she said before they turned toward the house.

  “She’s dead tired all the time.”

  “I wish there was something I could do. But I wonder if it isn’t hypocritical.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “If she knew, do you think she would have forgiven us by now?”

  “Yes
. Long ago.”

  “I’m not sure I could. If I knew for sure. All these years, she’s never asked?”

  “Not even a hint,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d tell her. She’s too nice a girl to lie to.”

  “Or hurt.”

  “Yeah, or hurt.”

  Inside, Mrs. Grouse and old Milly had not budged. If anything had changed, it was their posture, for both were sitting straighter now, and they looked stronger, somehow, as if being joined at the knee had worked some sort of transfusion. Milly looked up smartly when Anne and her son-in-law came in. “Diana,” she called. “Are we all going to die of famine, or is there some food in this house?”

  “It’s on the table, Ma,” Dan said from the doorway. “If I can see it without standing up, I guess you can too.”

  The old woman turned back to her sister. “I haven’t eaten a thing all week,” she said. “But right now I could eat a cow.”

  “You know what, dear?” said Mrs. Grouse. “I’m hungry too, for some reason.”

  “For some reason,” Anne said under her breath. For some reason she herself had lost her appetite.

  4

  Dallas Younger grunted loudly and rolled over in bed. He had been dreaming vividly and wanted to go back to sleep so he could find out how the dream ended up. Not knowing would bother him the rest of the day. He’d waste a lot of time trying to remember the dream’s details, examining them for clues, until consciousness finally banished the whole thing. Dallas never paid any attention to completed dreams, but fragments were worrisome.

  The alarm clock on his nightstand was quivering and buzzing weakly, the way it always did when he allowed it to ring for a long time before shutting it off. Dallas opened one eye and peeked at the clock suspiciously, not wanting to believe, at least not yet, that he had overslept again. Then a horrible idea struck him and he ran his tongue along the roof of his palate, encountering there nothing but gum. Unwilling to accept the evidence of a mere tongue which, now that he thought about it, tasted suspiciously rancid, he stuck his index finger into his mouth and felt around. No doubt about it. His bridge was gone again.

  When he heard something in the hall outside his apartment, he vaulted out of bed. This was the third bridge he had lost in as many months, and it occurred to him now with startling clarity that someone had to be stealing them, actually sneaking into his room and removing them as he slept. Benny D., in all likelihood, as a practical joke. It wouldn’t be difficult, for Dallas always slept with his mouth open, one of a dozen personal habits Anne had irrationally held against him, as if he had control over them. He ran to the door and flung it open in time to discover his neighbor, Mrs. Nicolelia, after locking the door to her flat, deposit something into her purse. Whatever it was sounded to Dallas Younger a little like teeth, and he regarded the woman suspiciously.

  What Mrs. Nicolelia saw when she looked up was a thirty-six-year-old man, naked, who looked like he had just awakened with something on his mind. Something to do with her, a middle-aged widow woman, living alone, except when her daughter visited, which was practically never.

  For his own part, Dallas became aware of two things simultaneously: first, that he had no clothes on; and second, that Mrs. Nicolelia was no teeth thief. The expression on her face was ample testimony. “My teeth,” Dallas tried to explain, having difficulty with the th sound.

  “Your what?” said Mrs. Nicolelia, confused, expecting from the naked man another sort of communication entirely.

  “Teeth,” Dallas repeated. This time the sound he made more closely approximated his meaning, and he succeeded in reducing at least one level of his neighbor’s confusion.

  “You aren’t wearing any,” she reported. Then, seeing that he still eyed her purse, his brain refusing to surrender completely the sound it had first recognized as that of falling teeth, she opened the purse wide so he could see. No teeth.

  Back in his apartment, Dallas commenced a thorough search of the premises, though he knew in advance it would be futile. He was thinking more clearly now and the former certainty that his teeth had been stolen began to seem rash. His two-room flat was easy to search. Once he examined the sink and shower, stripped the sofa sleeper and plunged his hands down along the seams, he was more or less finished. His quest was not without its immediate rewards, however, for he found, among other things, his nail clippers, a dollar and a half in change, and a paperback Mickey Spillane, its spine broken and pages falling out. But nothing even vaguely porcelain. He gathered up the Spillane and put it in the trash, figuring that if the urge to finish the book ever became unbearable he could pick up another copy. This particular edition had disappeared months ago without his noticing, so that was unlikely. In the long run he would probably worry more about how his unfinished dream was supposed to come out. In the closet by the hall door he went through the pockets of all his clothes, clean and dirty, finding a number of interesting things but not what he was looking for. Giving up, he put on the only clean workshirt in the closet—this one happened to have Cal stitched in script over the pocket—and made a mental note that it was time to do his laundry. The last two days he had worn shirts with other people’s names on them, and that was a sure sign he was running low on everything.

  Actually, the loss of his teeth was not tragic this time, since he had displayed uncustomary foresight in ordering a spare set the last time he woke up toothless. The spares he found in their pink case in the medicine cabinet where he had stashed them behind the bottle of Old Spice someone had given him two Christmases ago and which he’d been meaning to use. He slipped the bridge in place and it fit perfectly, even better than the old one. Instead of angry and embarrassed, he began to feel pleased with himself for the way he had providently provided against mischance.

  Since he was already late for work, he decided to stop and see his brother’s widow, remembering, for some reason, that today was his niece’s birthday. Mother and daughter lived in a small, square house on the outskirts of town near Mohawk Sand and Gravel. Dallas parked at the curb, since the driveway was strewn with children’s toys. Although they had been married in their teens, Loraine and Dallas’s younger brother David didn’t have their child until they were in their late twenties, after they had just about given up. David was so excited about the baby that he spent every spare penny on his daughter, not that there were so many pennies to spare. When Dawn was one and he discovered he had cancer, David went a little crazy, taking out a substantial loan so he could buy the little girl twenty years’ worth of presents. They filled up the walk-in closet of the spare bedroom, each package wrapped and dated: Merry Christmas 1985; Happy Birthday 1987. Loraine had shown Dallas the closet the day after David’s funeral, and he remembered the way she had stared blankly at all the brightly wrapped gifts, still awed, perhaps, by her husband’s great need to enter and enrich his daughter’s life over the long years from the grave.

  Dallas found Dawn swinging in the back yard, her white-sneakered feet straight out in front of her. She didn’t quite have the hang of pumping but was doing the best she could. When she saw her uncle, the little girl scuffed to a stop and ran up to meet him. “Pow!” she said, poking him in the forehead with her index finger when he picked her up.

  “How old are you?” he said.

  “Two old.”

  “I’m the one that’s too old, you knucklehead. Besides, you’re three old today. Don’t you know your own birthday?”

  Loraine then appeared at the screen door and studied her brother-in-law wearily. She was still in her bathrobe. Actually, it looked like it might have been David’s. “You again,” she said, holding the door open for Dallas to come in without having to set his niece down.

  “That’s a nice hello after you don’t see me for a month.”

  Loraine cocked her head and frowned at him suspiciously. “You were here last night in case you forgot. Three in the morning.”

  Dallas did not know whether to believe her or not. He had no recollection of visiting his si
ster-in-law last night, but then he had next to no recollection of last night. For some reason though, when he first saw her standing there on the other side of the screen, he had imagined—could it have been a memory?—that she had been wearing a nightgown, the shadowy outline of her breasts just visible behind the fabric. Dallas tried to think why he should have imagined such a sight. “What would I have been doing here,” he asked, genuinely curious.

  “You were drunk. I told you to get lost. You really don’t remember?”

  “Did I have my teeth?”

  Loraine shot him a pained look that contained little sympathy. “Not again.…”

  Dallas nodded, pulling a chair from the kitchen table, and sat, the little girl still on his lap. Dawn pulled up her dress to show him her panties, which featured an embroidered pig. She leaned back as far as she could, her knees high in the air, so he could have the full benefit of the pig. “Will you take me to Chickey Fried Chicken?”

  “You mean the Kentucky Colonel? All the way to Schenectady?”

  Dawn nodded eagerly and smoothed her dress back down.

  “At times I still can’t believe you and David were brothers,” Loraine said.

  “Uncle Dallas says it’s my birfday.”

  “How would he know? He doesn’t even know where his teeth are.” Loraine squinted at him. “What are those in your mouth?”

  “Spares. You mean it’s not her birthday?”

  “You insisted the same thing last night. It isn’t till the middle of the month.”

  “And I had my teeth?”

  “It was three in the morning, Dallas. I don’t remember. Though I think I would have noticed if you didn’t.”

  Since there now appeared to be a consensus that today was not her birthday, Dawn squirmed down from her uncle’s lap and went to her mother, clutching her robe with one hand, inserting the other, nearly the whole fist, in her own mouth.

  “Come back here.”

  “No,” the little girl said, coyly refusing to look at him.

 
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