Mohawk by Richard Russo


  Anne went back to the dining room and paid the check, then walked her cousin out to the parking lot. “Let me drive you home,” she said.

  “No. I left the alcohol inside, along with that beautiful shrimp. It’s unthinkable to pay that price for shrimp and then leave it behind.”

  “These things happen.”

  “Not to me. Promise you won’t tell Dan.”

  “Why? Lord knows, he’s been there.”

  “It isn’t that,” she said. “I just don’t want him to suspect how badly I needed to … to act like this. He’d feel bad if he knew.”

  “He’s a big boy.”

  Her cousin smiled. “Not really.”

  “Drive extra carefully. I can’t afford to lose my best friend.”

  Diana looked both surprised and pleased. “We are good friends, aren’t we?”

  “Of course.”

  Diana rooted around in her bag until she found the keys to her Volkswagen. She refused to learn how to drive Dan’s customized Lincoln, afraid that in a moment of crisis she’d become confused and lose it. She turned the key in the VW’s ignition, but only idled the engine. “Do you remember that night the four of us were coming back from the lake?”

  “Yes, I do.”

  “I wanted to go in that night. God, how I wanted to. But I just couldn’t. Isn’t that sad?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe not.”

  “I think it is. I envied you so much, the way you always did whatever you wanted. I guess I still do.”

  “I’m not so wild any more.”

  “You can get mad, at least. Sometimes, I think if I could just get good and mad.… I don’t know.… I envy you, anyway.”

  “Please don’t, Diana. I mean it.”

  “How can I help it. Look at you.”

  Anne said nothing. Telling Diana that she was married to the man Anne herself had been in love with all her adult life wouldn’t be much of a comfort.

  “I’ve always felt, somehow, that that night was a crossroads for all of us. You and Dallas. Dan and me. If I hadn’t been so … who knows? Everything might have turned out differently.”

  “I doubt it,” Anne said truthfully. “There are times when I suspect it’s all mapped out before we’re born.”

  “No,” Diana said. “It has to be us. Otherwise there’s no sense. Otherwise.…”

  Anne reached in and patted her cousin’s hand on the steering wheel. “Give Dan my best.”

  “I will,” Diana promised. “Poor Dan.”

  11

  Growing up in Mohawk, Anne Grouse had little opportunity to mix with any but the sons of shopkeepers and leather cutters and gas station owners. Of these, Dallas Younger had been the most dashing. By local standards he was an athlete of considerable skill, with just the hint of a bad reputation, which made him doubly attractive to Anne, a year his junior. After a quarrel with his family, Dallas had simply moved out of their home and into a room above the Scallese Drugstore, living the kind of independent life that made him the envy of every boy in Mohawk High. When a graduating senior got pregnant, suspicion had immediately fallen on Dallas Younger, because he and the girl had once dated and because a seventeen-year-old boy with a place of his own might be expected to put it to good use.

  When Anne started going out with him, it was with the expectation that he would educate her. She, too, had a reputation for being wild, which she had done little to discourage and nothing to merit. More than anything, she feared that if she did not do something to authenticate her reputation soon, she’d risk losing it. To contemplate the depth and breadth of her innocence was far more frightening than any fear of pregnancy. Mrs. Grouse had shared no wisdom with her and her father was not the sort of man a young girl with questions felt comfortable approaching. Anne knew little more than that with boys came the danger of conception, and that with boys like Dallas Younger the danger was multiplied.

  There was also the danger of destroying her father’s dream—that she would win a scholarship to the state university. No one in his own or his wife’s family had ever been to college. A man with eight grades’ worth of education himself, Mather Grouse had spent the better part of his adult life doing what he called “improving his mind.” His readings were eclectic, if wholly undisciplined, and by the time he was thirty, he knew a great deal without even beginning to satisfy his curiosity or discover its source. And he knew too that while he had read more than a great many educated men, the fact remained that they were educated and he was not.

  From the beginning, Anne had shared her father’s reverence for books, and he treated her to Saturday afternoons at the Mohawk Free Library the way other Mohawk fathers treated their offspring to movie matinees. By her sophomore year in high school, Anne was reading restless books that he himself would not have selected for her, and he had to comfort himself with the firm conviction that most of what he objected to in Mohawk and the world at large was not the result of people reading the wrong books, but rather of not reading any at all.

  On the subject of boys, however, Mather Grouse was a stern lawgiver, reminding his daughter repeatedly that her future hinged on her ability to keep from falling in love with some local boy long on promises and short on ambition. “There is no disparity,” he was fond of quoting from David Copperfield, “in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.” He didn’t tell her that she was better than her classmates—just that it was unlikely she would meet anyone in Mohawk who wanted out of life what she wanted, or rather what her father wanted for her and trusted that in the end she would want for herself.

  In the matter of boys in general and Dallas Younger in particular, it was odd that Anne for the first time in her life discovered an ally in her mother. Mrs. Grouse, who would not have said so openly, did not share her husband’s ambitions for their daughter, partly because she feared a destiny far worse for the strong-willed Anne than the possibility of settling down to a responsible, dutiful existence like her own. And duty, that virtue she had tried to inculcate in her daughter above all others, would surely be driven home by necessity—the demands of a husband and children and a home. To Mrs. Grouse, her husband’s efforts to raise his daughter’s level of expectation had succeeded only in making her more vain and proud than she was by nature. The girl became more difficult by the hour, to the point of questioning the way her mother did things and demanding to know the reasons, openly expressing doubts that there were any.

  Under normal conditions, even with his wife and daughter in cahoots, Mather Grouse would never have permitted Anne to date a boy like Dallas Younger. But as it happened, Mr. Grouse had recently averted what he considered a far greater threat to his daughter’s well-being. Anne never understood her father’s horror at seeing her on the street in the company of Billy Gaffney, a quiet boy who’d had a crush on her for several semesters. One afternoon the boy had finally summoned the courage to approach her, only to discover himself dumbstruck. Unable to ask for the privilege of carrying her books, he had finally, in utter desperation, yanked them away and refused to look at her as they walked, responding subverbally to her small talk.

  That her father should explicitly forbid her to associate with the Gaffney boy, surely the most harmless of classmates, made little sense to Anne, but she had never seen Mather Grouse more adamant. Normally she wouldn’t have given in, but giving up Billy Gaffney was a little like giving up liver for Lent. She felt sorry for him. Even once it was widely known that she and Dallas Younger were “going together,” Billy Gaffney followed her home from school and stood across the street from the Grouse home as if awaiting a summons to dinner. Then something had happened to him—an automobile accident, people said—and he never recovered.

  Having put his foot down about Billy Gaffney, Mather Grouse was reluctant to register another serious objection, though he never disguised his opinion that Anne wouldn’t take long to discover on her own Dallas Younger’s limitations. Ironically, the limitation she spotted almost immediately was Dallas’s lack of
worldly experience, for he turned out to be nearly as shy and inept as Billy Gaffney.

  Dallas had some limited experience of girls, but none of “nice” girls, and no idea of how to treat a girl too pretty and well mannered to be comfortable with. They’d had several dates before Dallas brushed her lips with his. That quick, terrifying touch, the smell of her scented breath, convinced Dallas that life was deep down good. It convinced Anne that it must’ve been someone else who knocked up Mary Sue Bergen. The realization was stunning. After all, Dallas was known to hang around the pool hall, and he freely admitted to losing significant sums of money in poker games.

  Innocence aside, there was much to admire. Dallas was independent, had a place and a car of his own, and wouldn’t even have returned for his senior year if it hadn’t been for baseball. He held down an afternoon job at a local garage and never seemed to want for ready cash. There was even something romantic about Dallas in his work clothes, which made him look more like a man than a boy. Anne sometimes would wet a tissue with her tongue and remove a smudge from his cheek, an act that seemed to both of them entirely wanton and exciting.

  To say that Dallas “had a car” was somewhat misleading, because most of the time it was spread out all over the garage floor. No matter how you looked at a car, any car, it was impressive, but for Dallas perhaps the best way of looking was to lay all of its parts flat out there where you could see the full extent of your investment. On those occasions when he assembled the pieces, his car always ran, and on weekends he never had to ask his father for the keys to the family car. To Anne, Dallas was a sort of person she hadn’t ever known, as well as an exciting contrast to her father. Each day Mather Grouse faithfully went to the shop, just as he had since Anne was a little girl, having acquired in all those years nothing except emphysema. In the autumn her mother would stock the pantry with canned goods in case his work did not last the winter. They had nothing but a small savings account, not even a family car.

  There was a time when things looked as if they might improve, but it was brief. Mr. Grouse had been promoted to foreman at the shop, which meant not only more money but also a guaranteed winter. After a month, however, he went back to being a simple cutter. He had stepped down by choice; he told Mrs. Grouse that there was too much politics in the job and that he disliked wielding authority over men he had worked side by side with for so long. But for the first time in her life, Anne suspected her father of not telling the complete truth. A man he disliked was promoted to take his place, and the Grouses’ new-found prosperity and security was over.

  So, when Mather Grouse insinuated that Dallas lacked ambition, Anne had smiled bitterly to herself. It was true that Dallas had little interest in any of the things her father valued, but at eighteen the boy already had a place of his own and a car to boot. She didn’t question her father’s reverence for learning, his moral uprightness or his desire for more out of life than enough money to play the daily number and get drunk on weekends. But even measured by his own yardstick, Mather Grouse hardly seemed a success. And Dallas, feckless though he was, had more to show for his efforts—and a lot more fun than her father, for whom, it seemed to Anne, life was little more than a succession of sacrifices without even a slender promise of reward.

  Anne Grouse, then seventeen, also feared that the world outside Mohawk County—the better life that for Mather Grouse was the promise of education and hard work—was naturally reluctant to embrace those who were not born into it. Her suspicions on this score derived from her reading and from a day at Saratoga with Dallas. She could tell when he picked her up that morning that life was pretty much the way he thought it should be. His car was waxed and shiny, and the sky was robin’s-egg blue. The night before he had won nearly two hundred dollars at craps, and on the way to the track he gave Anne a complete rundown. She only half listened to his enthusiastic rendering, but she, too, was excited. Today was opening day at the flats, which meant that the horse people from up and down the east coast would be present. She’d heard reports of the pageantry, and was proud that Dallas wanted to show it to her at firsthand.

  They arrived over an hour before the gates opened and, though Dallas was all for going directly to the track, when they drove past a grand old hotel with lush flowers all the way up the sloping terrace and people dressed all in white, breakfasting on the long, canopied porch, Anne made him stop. She immediately wished she hadn’t. The parking lot was full of large new automobiles calculated to diminish Dallas’s pride in his reconstructed Chevy. On the hotel porch the whiteness of the tablecloths and the new paint and the expensive summer clothing threw off a glare, and Anne could see that Dallas was none too comfortable even before the neatly jacketed waiter received them cooly.

  Dallas, whose social graces did not include reticence, remarked audibly that in his opinion there were nicer spots right in Mohawk, and lots of them. The thin film of automobile grease that no amount of washing ever completely removed was suddenly very apparent to Anne, who wondered if all the summer people had noted this as well. In conversation over the linen, he waved his silver fork like a baton to music only he could hear.

  At the track Dallas insisted on the clubhouse where the people around them were interchangeable with the ones on the hotel porch. The women wore jewels and their escorts seldom spoke above a whisper. Dallas, full of his expertise as a handicapper, freely offered tips to men who returned his friendly overtures with bored smiles and unfeigned indifference to his advice, which, had anyone taken it, would have proved disastrous. He lost everything he had won the previous night and then some. After which he announced that it was clear the jockeys had fixed all the races for the day, and the rest of the suckers could stick around to get fleeced if they wanted to, but he’d had enough.

  On the drive home Dallas was morose, his recent exuberance and self-confidence dashed. He did throw his arm around Anne’s shoulder when it was offered, but she could tell that the day’s events weighed heavily on him. The car wasn’t running as well as it should, it seemed to him, not even as well as it had that morning. He’d have to tear it apart tomorrow. When they drove past a sign that announced Mohawk County, Dallas was unable to suppress a sigh of relief. Even Anne, to whom Main Street now looked for the first time unrelentingly shabby, was happy, for both their sakes, to be home.

  12

  Sunday mornings, when his wife goes to church, Mather Grouse often sleeps sitting up in his favorite armchair. The house is quiet then, and he has faith that he will not die on a Sunday. Sometimes he will turn on a television evangelist. It doesn’t matter greatly which one because Mather Grouse never turns up the volume far enough to hear distinctly what is being said. What he likes is the rhythm and, if it’s the right sort of sermon, he will not only sleep but actually breathe with the cadence. Often his “religious slumbers,” as he terms them, are the most peaceful time of his week.

  Mather Grouse does not sleep much at night any more. Breathing is difficult when he lies down, and he often has nightmares in which his lungs don’t take in sufficient oxygen. Each night he spends many hours perched on the edge of the bed, thinking about smoking cigarettes and how nice it would be to be able to recline and breathe at the same time.

  But come Sunday morning his old chair is perfect. Its arms have been worn threadbare by his elbows, but he will not let Mrs. Grouse put a slipcover over it unless company is coming, which—when he has anything to say about it—is seldom. He believes that sick old men should be left alone, except when they don’t want to be, and he has managed over the years to be left alone. This morning Mrs. Grouse and Anne and Randall will visit the Woods after church. He has been left a plate of something in the refrigerator for when he is hungry, but he cannot imagine being hungry today. The medicine leaves a brassy taste in his mouth, and any more he eats out of duty, to avoid weakness. He nods sleepily, his chin coming to rest upon his breastbone, his bald spot staring at the smiling black-and-white evangelist.

  Mather Grouse is asleep only a few mi
nutes when the doorbell rings. He ignores it, not even bothering to open his eyes. Odd people sometimes come by on Sundays, wanting to discuss Scripture. They are far more likely to go away if you don’t answer the door than if you do and tell them to. Mather Grouse cannot remember if the blinds are drawn, but this doesn’t matter. If they look in, see an old man slumped forward in an armchair and fail to raise him with the bell, they will depart. Basically they just follow Scripture, and Scripture doesn’t have any advice about what to do in these situations. Soon he will hear the sound of their retreating footsteps.

  When the bell rings again, Mather Grouse slyly opens one eye, just enough to see. A lone man is standing on the porch, but the blinds are half drawn and Mather Grouse cannot make out who it is. He can think of no one who has any business standing on his porch on a Sunday morning, but when the bell rings a third time, he pulls himself out of the chair and goes to the door where his old friend Dr. Walters is waiting patiently. “Are you going to invite me in, Mather?”

  Mather Grouse decides not to, but he does pull open the door and step out of the way. “You’re not in church,” he remarks.

  “I don’t go as regularly as I used to,” the old doctor admits. “In fact I’ve been feeling particularly irreligious lately. I don’t suppose it’s good form for men our age to indulge in crises of faith, though.”

  Mather Grouse has already returned to his armchair. “Men our age shouldn’t indulge in anything.”

  Dr. Walters takes off his outer coat and folds it neatly over the arm of the sofa. If Mrs. Grouse were there, she would hang it up and offer him a cup of tea, but Mather Grouse’s inhospitality is legendary, even among his friends. “Any more I find myself a prey to young men’s doubts. I’ve come to suspect there’s something dark at the center. Don’t you find that silly?”

 
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