Mohawk by Richard Russo


  About the only part of summer that Mather Grouse missed was his little garden in back of the house—dead now for another year, the vines of his tomato plants brown and brittle. Today he got down on one knee to feel the earth. Inside the house he heard Mrs. Grouse humming tunelessly. In the kitchen, by the sound of it. When the humming moved to a more remote corner of the house, he pulled out a loose board above the cellar window and removed the plastic bag he’d hidden there. Inside the airtight plastic pouch were some Camels. He took one out, slipped it into his shirt pocket and quickly zipped his windbreaker to the neck before returning the bag to its hiding place. Fortunately, Mrs. Grouse was cleaning and wouldn’t interrupt her sacred duty to take a walk with him, even though she would be suspicious and irritated when he returned.

  Getting away with something sent a dark sensation through him, as when he was a boy. As far back as Mather Grouse could remember, he had always known the difference between right and wrong, though his mother had always pleaded Mather’s defense with his father when the boy misbehaved, arguing that he was too young to grasp the significance of his misdeeds. But his father was a wise man who never suffered recriminations or self-doubts once he’d taken off his belt. Young Mather had always endured his punishments stoically, tracing the progress of the pain to its climax, then to its gradual decline until that time after the strapping when he could cheerfully pronounce it gone. He saw no good reason to resent punishment, at least at the time, for he knew in his heart that he was more often bad than punished, which was what kept life from seeming a shabby, piddling thing.

  After his father’s early death, the result of having whistled into too many empty gin bottles and having no one to strap him for it, Mather Grouse took upon himself the task of reining in his passions. His mother was far too weak and compassionate to help her son, so he donned the hair shirt pretty frequently—whenever it seemed like a good idea. He didn’t overburden himself with commandments, but merely pledged to steer clear of women and mind his own business, which covered just about everything that was likely to cause him serious grief. By the time he reached his middle teens, he had made of himself a sober and industrious youth, and when he left his mother’s house to take his first job, he was able to compliment himself that he had successfully held in check his innate depravity, though now and then he still enjoyed getting away with things. But at sixty-four his wife’s vigilance took up where his own left off.

  This afternoon he decided to walk through Choir Park—a good deal farther than he usually ventured, for he tired easily, but today he felt strong and it had been a long time since he’d truly tested himself. He enjoyed the symmetrical paths that wound among the hedges and pines. If he tired, he could always stop at the bandshell and rest on one of the benches. There weren’t any flowers this late in the year, but with luck he’d catch the smell of burning leaves.

  It was a gray afternoon, and when he arrived at the park, Mather Grouse was thankful for his windbreaker. He had the park to himself. There was no hurry, since Mrs. Grouse would be equally suspicious and irked regardless of the length of his absence. In the end he would still have to face her arched brow, the offended tilt of her slender jaw, the pursed lips, but in the meantime there was the autumn afternoon and the threat of an endless winter during which to remember it. When he arrived at the bandshell, he wasn’t breathing heavily and the smell of the leaves made him feel young and strong. He sat down on a park bench, content.

  He sat until he felt he had denied himself the final pleasure long enough. Then he took out the Camel, lit it and inhaled deeply. It seemed odd to Mather Grouse that nothing went all the way down any more except cigarette smoke, which somehow knifed through the phlegm and arrived at the very center of his body. At times he thought it would be the most exquisite pleasure in the world to smoke an entire pack of Camels, one right after the other, for it was only when he smoked that he had the sensation of truly breathing. Intellectually he knew it was cruel deception—that each Camel reduced the number of breaths allotted him—but there was no denying the experience. Even the pure oxygen he received at the hospital didn’t penetrate the way Camels did, and he often smiled at the notion that what he needed was not to be hooked up to an oxygen tank but to an endless Camel.

  Mather Grouse became aware that he was not alone precisely when he inhaled his last drag on the cigarette. A dark-complexioned man roughly his own age stood idly by the bandshell. Mather became aware of him just as it occurred to him that the afternoon had become bitter cold and that the park bench was acting as a conduit for the cold earth at his feet. There was no way to tell how long the man had been standing there, but he had the impression it wasn’t a short while, because he’d caught no movement in his peripheral vision. Mather Grouse knew who the man would be even before he recognized him.

  Rory Gaffney nodded at him and limped over—like his brother a large, soft man, but the way he moved, almost in slow motion, made him seem more menacing. No child ever taunted him the way kids on their bikes had their favorite police officer. Rory Gaffney’s hair was tousled and his chin and cheeks perpetually gray, no matter how recently the straight razor had glided over them, his generally scruffy appearance in contrast to the lush, milk-white, leather coat he wore. Mather Grouse, who had worked with leather all his life, had never seen a more beautiful skin. It was the kind you paid your employer for the privilege to cut. Rory Gaffney stopped at the row of benches where Mather Grouse sat and sidled down the row.

  “Mr. Grouse,” said Rory Gaffney, reaching into his coat pocket for a pack of cigarettes. “How are you, sir?” The last word sounded anything but congenial.

  “As well as I deserve,” Mather Grouse said without turning. They might have been the only two men in a church, the low gray sky its ceiling, the bandshell its altar.

  “Deserve!” said Rory Gaffney enthusiastically. “Deserve, yes. Well, thank the good God above we’re none of us worse off than we deserve!” He jerked the pack of cigarettes, so the ones near the opening popped up part way. He lifted one clear of the pack before offering it to Mather Grouse. When he was refused, Rory Gaffney rather pointedly allowed the offer to stand by not withdrawing the pack, as if there should be no mistake.

  “You don’t see skins like this any more,” Gaffney observed, extending one arm so that Mather Grouse could inspect the leather close up. To a passerby it would’ve looked like he was offering the back of his hand to be kissed. But there was no passerby. The park was still.

  Mather Grouse admired the leather but declined to touch, even when it remained before him, as with the cigarettes. “The good stuff is a thing of the past,” he said, wishing the arm away.

  It went, finally. “Mostly,” Rory Gaffney agreed pleasantly. He lit a match on his thumbnail and the tip of his cigarette glowed red, the burning tobacco inching toward the man’s parted lips. “You never come by the shop any more.”

  “Never,” Mather Grouse admitted.

  “A clean break from the past.”

  “Yes.”

  “I understand,” Rory Gaffney said. He smoked cross-kneed, exhaling through his weedy nostrils. “It isn’t like the old days. Things change.”

  “Not most things.”

  “No. But some things. You and I, we’re old men, and that’s change.”

  Mather Grouse smiled. He still had not looked at his companion. “The world will do fine without us.”

  “Ah, but how will we do?”

  “As we deserve, I suppose.”

  Suddenly Gaffney snorted and coughed, the cigarette bobbing between his lips. But he left it where it was, though he gripped the park bench with both hands. “Deserve,” he said. “It’s always deserve with you, Mather. You always come back to it. You’re going to tell me you’re not afraid to die?”

  “No.”

  “Good. Because you have a reputation for telling the truth.”

  Mather Grouse looked out into the leaves.

  “Me? I hate the thought of dying,” the other man o
bserved. “There’s no place better than where we are right now. I have some good years left, and I don’t see why anything should spoil them.”

  This sounded to Mather Grouse like a question. “You’ve always been lucky.”

  “Right!” the other man agreed. “Luckier than I deserve, you may think, but that’s life. I’d bet my luck will hold.”

  “Yes,” Mather Grouse said, though without pleasure.

  The other man seemed satisfied. “You should visit the shop. I still work a little, teach the young ones.”

  Mather Grouse shifted on the park bench. For many minutes he had become aware of a tightening in his chest that had now become a fist, and he was suddenly short of breath. It did not surprise him, though he had felt so well and strong a half hour before. The spells came and went without warning.

  “Not that they want to learn the important things, these young ones,” Rory Gaffney said. “For them there’s nothing in life except today. Me, I live for the future.”

  That remark seemed so incomprehensible to Mather Grouse that for the first time he looked squarely at the other man, forgetting for a moment the problem of whether or not he could draw another breath. “And what do you see in your future?” he said.

  “Everything,” Gaffney answered.

  “Everything?”

  “Yes, everything. Do you understand?”

  “No.”

  “Then let me explain. The other afternoon I picked up a hitchhiker. She was maybe fifteen. She pulled her shirt right up to show me.” Rory Gaffney pulled an imaginary shirt up to his neck to demonstrate, holding his elbows straight out, and he left them there when Mather Grouse looked away. “Cutest little things you ever saw. You don’t believe me?”

  Mather Grouse bent forward to breathe.

  “God’s own truth.”

  They sat a while in silence. Gaffney showed no apparent interest in finishing his story, but presently said, “Most men our age live in the past. I say forget the past. Make like it never happened. Regret in the ground.”

  Mather Grouse said nothing.

  “My wife left me, you remember. I regretted for a while. Then I said the hell with it. Regret in the ground.”

  Rory Gaffney ran his hands through his hair, then stretched. “You’re smart to stay away from the shops,” he said, apparently forgetting his previous advice on the subject. “You aren’t a man to dwell on what’s done and can’t be undone.”

  “No.”

  “And I’ll bet the good Mrs. Grouse is the same.”

  “She knows nothing of the past.”

  A gust of wind came up, standing Gaffney’s thinning hair on end and revealing a larger extent of baldness than perhaps he would have wished. He smoothed the hair back into place, not bothering to transfer the cigarette to the other hand. A glowing red spark detached itself and settled onto the man’s scalp, but if Gaffney felt it, he showed no sign. Instead, he rose and buttoned the milk-white coat. “You should wear something heavier, Mather. The long winter’s coming. You should comfort yourself. A fine coat like this one would look well on you. You deserve one.”

  He turned up his collar and looked around the empty park. Mather Grouse did not get up. He wasn’t sure he could; the fist in his chest hard and unrelenting.

  Gaffney lit another cigarette. “Your daughter and grandson live with you?”

  “Yes … upstairs.”

  “I have a granddaughter. Did I ever tell you?”

  “… no …”

  Rory Gaffney nodded. “Yes. Twelve years old. Take care of yourself, Mather. You don’t look well.”

  Then he was gone, and Mather Grouse was left alone on the park bench in the gray afternoon. Someone had raked brown, brittle leaves from the flowerbeds into a pile near a large drum, but most of the leaves had scattered and drifted. Mather Grouse watched some leaves dance in a funnel that swirled vigorously, then abruptly died. Home was a very long way away, and he could not imagine where he would find the strength. He thought of his father and wondered for the first time if the man had drunk himself to death on purpose.

  On the ground at his feet lay the butt of Rory Gaffney’s first cigarette, flat and broken and covered with dry earth. He bent to pick it up and felt himself slump and the gray sky came into view. He watched the swiftly moving clouds until his grandson Randall appeared, his face ringed with the faraway branches of dead trees. When the boy handed him the inhaler he had left behind, Mather Grouse took it reluctantly, for his body had begun to relax. His first good breath hurt. The air had the sting of winter.

  10

  One weekday in early November Diana Wood and Anne Grouse met for lunch at the new Holiday Inn on the highway. Anne arrived first and took a table by the window overlooking the Cayuga Creek, which wound off into the woods some thirty yards away. Her father said there were trout in the stream when he came to Mohawk as a young man. But the fish began to come out looking bulbous, and the Fish-and-Game quit stocking it. Recently there was talk of restocking, and to show that the past was past the tanneries were in favor.

  Anne smiled at the notion. The window reflected her face and she studied herself suspiciously. Her faint smile expressed little joy, but many would’ve found it lovely just the same, though she didn’t know what to make of it herself. Though no longer vain, as she once had been, she nevertheless found it pleasant to think she was still attractive. Her hair was long and blue-black. Lately she had considered cutting it short. She never wore it down any more, the way men invariably said they liked it best. Earlier in the week she overheard a man at work, one to whom she had made excuses, refer to her as “a shame,” and she took that as a compliment. In high school the boys had made the same comment about a pretty young girl who left school to join a convent, tragically just after her breasts had started to develop.

  Di was late and Anne had nearly finished her Bloody Mary by the time her cousin slid into the booth. “Now that’s a fine idea,” she said, ordering the same for herself, along with another for Anne. “Are we on a schedule, I hope not?”

  Anne said she didn’t need to get back before mid-afternoon.

  “Good,” Di said. “Let’s get roaring.”

  “Have you ever been roaring?”

  “No,” her cousin admitted. “And it’s high time, don’t you think?”

  “I hope you won’t be disappointed. It’s more messy than anything else.”

  “I don’t care. At least it’s my mess. Not my mother’s. Not my husband’s.”

  “All right.” Anne wondered what had brought on her cousin’s uncharacteristic mood. Diana, after all, had majored in circumspection and graduated at the head of the class.

  “I’m sorry I’m late, but Mother threw a fit when I told her I was going to the Holiday Inn. You know how she likes to eat out. Good food for a change is how she puts it. I had to take her over to your mother’s to save her from a stroke.”

  “Mother’s delighted, I’m sure.”

  “Poor Uncle Mather wasn’t. You know that look of horror he gets when company comes?”

  “He’s terribly antisocial.”

  “And no good at concealing it.”

  “He isn’t about to put a welcome mat on the front porch. He says people are literal-minded.”

  “I like him anyway.”

  “Me, too.”

  “I want shrimp,” Di said with sudden conviction, without even looking at the menu. “Ice cold with cocktail sauce. These things make you hungry.” She slurped the dregs of her drink through her straw.

  They both ordered shrimp from a young waiter whom Di Wood, already a little tipsy, felt compelled to tease. “I only want them if they’re large shrimp. Are they really large?”

  “Yes, Ma’am.”

  “How many?”

  “Four to an order.”

  “And how big?”

  The waiter showed her with his thumb and index finger.

  “Curled up or stretched out?”

  “Curled up.”

  “
Excellent.”

  The waiter went away and the cocktail waitress brought two more Bloody Marys. “Let’s meet here every day and get ripped,” Di suggested.

  “I’m a working woman, remember?”

  “What am I?”

  “You know what I mean.”

  Di was having far too good a time to feel miffed. She had never been able to drink, and three was two past her limit. “I’m enjoying this,” she said.

  “You ought to have a cocktail at home now and then. Dan would enjoy the company.”

  “I’d end up pushing the two of them into the pool.” Diana laughed out loud at the idea, then looked around guiltily, surprised by the volume of her voice and ashamed of her behavior. “If he doesn’t hurry up and have that damned operation, I’m going to go batty. Battier.”

  “I thought it was tomorrow.”

  “Not soon enough to suit me. If he starts one more project I have to finish, I’ll strangle him. I draw the line when it comes to the car. I know how he loves to tinker, but he can’t reach—which means he has me in and out of the house. Do this, do that, right there under the manifold, as if I know what a manifold is. Then he gets tired or discouraged and guess who gets to clean up. All the while Mother’s bellowing from the other end of the house that she’s ready to get out of the tub and have I finally gone away and left her to drown.”

  When the shrimp arrived, both women ate eagerly. Di crunched hers all the way down to the tails. “God, they were good,” she said once nothing was left but ice and cocktail sauce. “It’s odd, too. I never enjoy food. Let’s get some more.”

  “Let’s split an order.” Anne really didn’t want any more, but neither did she want to disappoint her cousin. When the shrimp came, she insisted Di eat three out of four.

  Everything was fine until Di, who was chattering happily, stopped and began to sweat. When she excused herself, Anne allowed her a few minutes before following into the rest room. Diana was on her knees, her head half in the commode. When she finished, Anne helped her to her feet and over to the mirror where Diana examined her streaked face and touched up her makeup as best she could. “You were right. It’s mostly just messy,” she said. “Leave me alone for a few minutes, okay?”

 
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