Mohawk by Richard Russo


  Her story so confused people that some began to credit the protestations the girl who lived in the trailer had been making from the start, an awesomely ugly tale that no one save Randall’s lawyer had wanted to believe.

  From a reporter’s standpoint, the best ticket in town was Dallas Younger, father of the accused, who, it turned out, had a disarming presence on television. Without coaching, he would look right into the camera and talk as if to another human being. Before long a string of reporters were following him around as best they could, this despite the fact that he clearly knew nothing. He not only knew nothing about what had happened the night the Gaffneys died, but also knew next to nothing about his son. Either he never knew or had forgotten, among other things, the boy’s middle name, his birthday, his favorite subjects in school, how long he and Anne had been married when Randall came along. But if Dallas wasn’t a rich source of information, his ignorance on key points was thoroughly engaging, and one reporter, famous for his human-angle method, pronounced that what Dallas knew was the story. And what Dallas knew all about was Mohawk. He was Mohawk, “a backcountry prophet too unself-conscious to guess that his words and attitudes were a ringing indictment of his world.” In time this last assessment became received truth, but only after Dallas was interviewed on all the local stations, quoted in the major regional newspapers and offered a lucrative contract with an Albany advertising firm to promote a new line of hunting-wear. He hadn’t hunted once in his life, but according to the agency his carriage and rugged face “reeked” of the woods they’d never been in either.

  That Dallas could be counted on for copy was good, because during the month preceding the scheduled commencement of the trial, no reporter got a word out of the boy’s mother, an attractive woman who unfortunately didn’t photograph at all well. On camera her face looked harshly angular, and she made the photogs doubt their skill, briefly, before writing her off. And since she gave the reporters nothing to write, they had to make up what they didn’t know, and most of them suggested vaguely that she was a piece of the tragic puzzle of her son’s ruined life. One columnist suggested that “ice water ran through her veins,” a line picked up again and again.

  “Shall I set these swine straight?” said Dan Wood one Sunday afternoon in October, a gray day very much like the one six years earlier when they had skimmed leaves from the pool. This year the pool was drained in September and a sheet of plastic stretched across to catch leaves. The golf course was crowded, and each time Anne heard the crack of a driver on the nearby seventh tee, she flinched, half expecting the ball to come slicing over the wall.

  “I don’t care what they say,” she told him.

  “Of course you do. Anybody would.”

  “You’re wrong. Saying is just saying. It’s only the doing that scares me.”

  “They’ll never get a conviction,” Dan said. “Any place but Mohawk, they wouldn’t even try.”

  “The men from selective service called again yesterday, frightening Mother half to death. I’m beginning to worry about her, and I never thought I would.”

  “The afternoon with Milly will buck her up.”

  “I’m not so sure. She’s never been this scared before. She’s just stayed inside and closed the door. Now she’s talking about selling the house.”

  “Why’s that such a bad idea?”

  “I don’t know. It’s Dad’s house.”

  Dan frowned at her.

  “I know what you think,” she said, “so there’s no reason to say it. I just can’t help wondering what he’d have made of all this. He never was particularly optimistic, but I doubt even he suspected things could come unglued so goddamned fast.… I feel like I should keep the house, even if I can’t keep it in order.”

  “And in this fashion are the sins of the fathers bequeathed to generations yet un-bow-ern,” Dan drawled. His evangelical prattle usually made Anne laugh. “Actually, I’m just jealous, since it turns out I’m not going to be able to keep my own house.”

  “Can I help? At least to forestall things?” There was still a sizable chunk of money left from what she called the Untemeyer Bequest. The old man had put Mather Grouse’s winnings in an interest-earning account and let it sit there for six years. Mrs. Grouse wouldn’t take it, naturally, but she had no objection to her daughter doing so, especially since Anne had replaced the roof. She had also repaid the money Dallas had borrowed from the Woods. Dan wouldn’t have accepted it, and was angry with his wife when he learned that she had, but in truth they needed the money badly. Randall’s bail had been set at eighty thousand, far beyond Dallas and Anne’s reach, though they tried. Anne had even located Price on the off chance that he’d suddenly struck it rich. He hadn’t, but was glad to hear from her just the same and very sorry about Randall, whom he “would’ve liked to square-up with.” He offered money, which Anne refused when he confessed that he was married and had two small boys. “I’ll bet they throw overhand,” she said.

  “Not yet.” Price had laughed. “We’ll wait and see.”

  “You better hang onto it,” Dan said. “When was the last time you ever had a lawyer do anything for you.”

  “I’m not involved,” she said, which was true so far. “Dallas says he’s taking care of it.”

  “And when do his French lessons start?”

  62

  Randall didn’t mind jail that much, or so he told his mother. Anne almost believed him. She made sure he had what he needed and paid him awkward visits whenever she could. They didn’t talk about what had happened. He simply told her he hadn’t killed anybody, and she knew this was true. Neither said another word on the subject. They did, however, discuss Billy Gaffney. “For a while, every time I looked up, there he’d be,” she said after explaining the afternoon outside the tannery. “I had started seeing your father then.”

  “He loved you,” Randall said.

  “Billy? I know. But we were young and he got over it. Before long he stopped standing on the corner. Then we heard about the accident—”

  “He was standing in the rain outside the house that night,” Randall said. “He always looked at me like he was seeing somebody else.”

  “Your grandfather … I never knew what he had against Billy, besides the obvious, I mean. He was a Mohawk boy, and to your grandfather that was enough. I don’t believe Billy could have stayed in love all those years. People don’t. At least not most.”

  She was thinking of exceptions, Randall could tell. “Your grandfather was a good man. Under different circumstances, he could’ve been a great one. But like most people he had blind spots, things he just couldn’t see even when they were pointed out. At times I wonder. If he ever really loved—the kind of love that hurts, I mean. I think in the end he was just afraid.”

  All things considered, Randall was treated well enough, partly because of the misconduct lawsuit his lawyer had filed, partly because the case was showing signs of strain with every passing day. Randall had been afraid the girl would lie for him, but she didn’t. In the back seat of the police car on the way to the hospital, he’d insisted that she tell the truth, and apparently she had. It was the only thing to do, of course. She might convince people that she’d shot Rory Gaffney, but she had no conceivable reason to shoot the policeman and Wild Bill. Both she and Randall stuck to their stories and offered to take lie detector tests. Neither could be budged, even on details, and that worried the district attorney, who had motive, method and opportunity, but would’ve preferred to have a real case. Still, there was a dead cop and the clamoring public.

  Other than his mother, Randall’s only visitor was B.G. A week before the trial was scheduled to begin, she brought the baby with her. “They aren’t going to let us in,” she said, drawing a chair up outside the cell. “They’re afraid you’ll take Sue hostage or something. Crazy, huh?”

  She looked lovely, and as he often did, Randall thought that if somebody taught her a little about makeup and how to dress and carry herself, she might really be som
ething. Maybe she was anyway. He hadn’t given much thought to being a family man, but she and the baby looked good to him, and it might be nice to sit someplace under a shade tree and bounce the child on his knee while she played the guitar and sang. Trouble was, there weren’t any shade trees so late in October, the girl didn’t play the guitar and he was in jail.

  “I think it’s ridick. You’re the nicest person I ever knew, and that’s counting everybody.”

  This wasn’t the first compliment she’d ever paid him, but it sounded unnatural. “Something wrong?” he said when she wouldn’t meet his eye.

  “I guess I better tell you,” she said. “Andy’s back in town. Saw me on the TV, I guess. He says inasmuch as we’re still married and everything—”

  Randall forced a smile. “Great. That’s great.” He stuck his thumb through the bar, and the baby caught it and hung on.

  “It’s good for her—to have a father and all. Not that you weren’t like a father—”

  “I wasn’t like a father.”

  She shrugged. “You think he’ll just run off again?”

  “Not if he’s smart.”

  “I’d rather with you, you know.”

  “It looks like I might be tied up for a while, one place or another.”

  “I hope it’s the war.”

  “Thanks.”

  “You wouldn’t get killed.”

  He didn’t consider this a point worth arguing.

  “I just wish Andy was a little more stable, you know? ’Cause if he takes off again, I won’t have either one of you.”

  “Maybe he’ll run off about the time I get out.”

  She hadn’t thought of that, and the possibility of such fortuitous timing made her grin. Randall couldn’t help smiling himself.

  · · ·

  Dallas visited only once. “So,” he said. “Son.” It was the longest twenty minutes of their lives.

  About the only thing Randall regretted was missing Diana Wood’s funeral. Milly had an attack, a real one, in the evening and was rushed to the hospital. Instead of returning home, Diana slept in a chair in her mother’s room. At five forty-five in the morning, the nurse found her there stone-cold when she came in to prepare Milly for her tests. The old woman was snoring soundly. Mrs. Grouse was summoned to break the news to her sister, who took it all in in swift stages of disbelief, disorientation and dysfunction. “Who ever heard of such a thing?” she said over and over again.

  63

  If Diana Wood’s death accomplished anything, it was to prove Anne’s father wrong when he suggested that if she continued to love Dan Wood, she’d be hoping for her cousin’s death. Loving him was something she couldn’t help, nor wanting him, and needing she couldn’t help either. But she had never wanted to take him away. She knew that now. Dan had always belonged to her cousin, and always would. When they all were younger, Anne had fantasized what their lives would’ve been like had she and Dan married. There were any number of believable scenarios—some happy, others tragic—and the sheer variety probably meant they didn’t amount to much. The only unthinkable scenario was Diana gone.

  By the funeral, Anne had begun to regain marginal control of pain and rage, but at the cemetery things began to come apart again. It was another gray day, with winter heavy in the air, and nothing made much sense. The leaves gusted to life in half a dozen different directions at once. For a while they danced furiously, tiny little cyclones, then came to rest, quivering, rippling.

  A great many mourners had followed to the grave, but to Anne it seemed that about a hundred people were inexplicably absent, though she couldn’t think who they might be. A lot of Dan’s people came in from out of town, and there were others who looked like they might be family. Dallas was there, a harlequin of mismatched clothing. He’d been the one who broke the news, Dallas-style, over the telephone. “You hear about Diana? She’s dead.” Somehow he had found out even before Dan. Anne hadn’t believed him, assuming that as usual he was confused, that it must be Milly. In fact she almost convinced Dallas, who knew better, since he was almost never right where Anne was concerned and easily bullied. He admitted he could be wrong, or the guy who told him might be, even though he was a good guy and you could usually take what he said to the bank. “Goodbye, Dallas,” she had told him.

  But he was right after all, and he felt so bad about it, even after so many years of being wrong, that he called back later to apologize. “You figure Dan needs some help,” he asked. “All kinds,” she told him, so Dallas told Benny D. he wouldn’t be working for a while and went over to the house on Kings Road and helped Dan drink. He stood now, alert behind the wheelchair as if he suspected it might have a life of its own and, if he weren’t vigilant, would race off with its occupant. He’d spent too much of his life screwing up without knowing why not to have a healthy respect for the unexpected. Dan on the other hand knew all about the chair, and the way he sat in it showed more clearly than ever before how he had become an extension of it. The vague sense of his not belonging in it, so powerful sometimes, had vanished. He seemed to have shrunken inside the black armrests.

  Next to Dallas and Dan, the two old sisters leaned into each other, looking as precarious as ever to anybody who didn’t know better. Mrs. Grouse said nothing, but Milly’s voice could occasionally be heard above the minister’s. On the fringes of the crowd, Anne recognized Dallas’s sister-in-law Loraine. She was at the church, too, though Anne couldn’t imagine why, since as far as she knew the two women had never met.

  After the service, since no one seemed particularly solicitous of her, Anne slipped away among the gray trees. Only from a safe distance did she look back and see the procession of black cars curling out the main gate. She found her father’s grave, which she hadn’t visited in the nearly six years since his death, but quickly hurried away again, sure that to open a conversation there would be a mistake. At Diana’s grave several men were working beneath the canopy that covered the open hole.

  “She was very kind,” said a voice at her elbow, causing her to start. It was Dallas’s sister-in-law, and apparently she had been standing there for some time, waiting for the opportunity to speak.

  “Yes,” Anne said. “I wasn’t aware that you knew each other.”

  “Only recently,” she said. “She introduced herself one night. It was at the hospital. She told me things were going to work out for my little girl. I remember she said it almost like she had some inside knowledge or something. I even started to hope again.”

  I wish she were here, Anne thought. Maybe she’d say something to me.

  “All the doctors said leukemia.”

  “I’m sorry,” Anne said.

  “That’s just it,” the other woman said. “They were wrong. It turned out to be something else. The same symptoms and really rare. It was like she knew. I don’t suppose she could’ve though.”

  “No. She was just an optimist.”

  “I wish I could be like that. Maybe I can, now. Lately, the whole world has seemed so … right.”

  “Really?”

  “I know it’s selfish, but I can’t help it. So many wonderful things have happened. Like Dallas showing up with all that money. I don’t know how it would have gotten paid for otherwise.”

  Anne smiled for the first time that day.

  “Did he tell you what he did?”

  “No. We hardly ever see each other.”

  The other woman was studying her carefully. “I guess I’ve been wondering about it. You know Dallas. He almost never has more than he needs, and he doesn’t need much.”

  “I wouldn’t worry about it,” Anne said. “Anybody lucky enough to get something out of Dallas shouldn’t ask too many questions. He probably had ten dollars on a number or something.”

  “I guess he gave you a rough time when you were married.”

  “No, I gave him a rough time.”

  Loraine looked away, embarrassed. “I should mind my own business.”

  “It was a long time
ago. We’ve both forgotten. I’m almost fond of him.”

  “Me, too. I mean I am fond of him. David worshiped him, of course.”

  “I remember,” Anne said. She liked Loraine, whose purpose was clearer than she supposed. “Dallas can be very sweet. Also very inconsiderate. Kind. Oblivious. Savvy. Obtuse. He doesn’t know how to behave, and nobody will ever teach him, but he’ll turn up when you least expect it, the nicest man you know. If we’d stayed married, there’d have been no survivors, but another woman might do better.”

  “I don’t know if I’d be up to it.”

  “You could try, if you felt like it. If you end up telling him to go away, he will, and he won’t hold a grudge either. He’ll just forget to be mad.”

  They were walking along the path now and stopped where the men were finishing up beneath the canopy. “Well,” said one of the men, unaware that they were not alone, “that’s about it. Say hello to eternity.”

 
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