The Risk Pool by Richard Russo



  “Russo’s writing is straightforward, hard-boiled realism—brisk and evocative.… The Risk Pool is a book whose simple truths live on, well after the final page is read.”

  —Philadelphia Inquirer

  “Power, passion and poignancy: In the story of a father and son, Rick Russo reminds me of James T. Farrell—a James T. Farrell who has not forgotten how to hope.”

  —Andrew M. Greeley

  “Russo’s realism is impeccable. His description of the depressed and restricted lives of Mohawk’s inhabitants is concrete and vivid.”

  —Los Angeles Times

  “Russo writes in a prose style as seductive as spring: the novel has a vigorous pace, sharply witty dialogue and a liberal helping of hilarious scenes. The book’s depiction of a community fallen on hard times, its vividly delineated characters, and its sensitive portrayal of a boy bewildered by the conditions of his life and learning to adapt to hardship, neglect and a curious kind of off-hand love all pack an emotional wallop. In short, it’s as good a novel as we are likely to get this year.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “Russo writes with genuine passion and authority; his ear for dialogue is so acute that one can almost hear the characters speaking.”

  —Chicago Tribune

  “A great book. I fell in love with the characters in this novel as I once fell in love with the characters in Garp.”

  —Pat Conroy



  Nobody’s Fool

  The Risk Pool

  Straight Man

  Empire Falls

  The Whore’s Child

  Bridge of Sighs

  That Old Cape Magic


  Copyright © 1986, 1988 by Richard Russo

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover, by Random House, Inc., New York, in 1988.

  A portion of this book appeared in slightly different form in Granta (Granta #19, Fall 1986).

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Russo, Richard, 1949—

  The risk pool/Richard Russo.—1st Vintage contemporaries


  p. cm.—(Vintage contemporaries)

  “Originally published, in hardcover, by Random House, Inc.,

  New York, in 1988”—T.p. verso

  eISBN: 978-0-307-80993-3

  I. Title.

  [PS3568. U812R57 1989] 89-40075


  The town of Mohawk, like its residents, is located only in the author’s imagination.


  For Jim Russo

  In Memoriam

  Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

  —John Steinbeck, Cannery Row


  The author gratefully acknowledges support from Southern Connecticut State University and Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, while he was working on this book. Special thanks also, for faith and assistance, to Nat Sobel, David Rosenthal, Gary Fisketjon, Greg Gottung, Jean Findlay and, always, my wife Barbara.



  Other Books by This Author

  Title Page





  Part 1 - Fourth of July

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Part 2 - Mohawk Fair

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Part 3 - Eat the Bird

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Part 4 - Winter

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44


  About the Author


  My father, unlike so many of the men he served with, knew just what he wanted to do when the war was over. He wanted to drink and whore and play the horses. “He’ll get tired of it,” my mother said confidently. She tried to keep up with him during those frantic months after the men came home, but she couldn’t, because nobody had been shooting at her for the last three years and when she woke up in the morning it wasn’t with a sense of surprise. For a while it was fun, the late nights, the dry martinis, the photo finishes at the track, but then she was suddenly pregnant with me and she decided it was time the war was over for real. Most everybody she knew was settling down, because you could only celebrate, even victory, so long. I don’t think it occurred to her that my father wasn’t celebrating victory and never had been. He was celebrating life. His. She could tag along if she felt like it, or not if she didn’t, whichever suited her. “He’ll get tired of it,” she told my grandfather, himself recently returned, worn and riddled with malaria, to the modest house in Mohawk he had purchased with a two-hundred-dollar down payment the year after the conclusion of the earlier war he’d been too young to legally enlist for. This second time around he felt no urge to celebrate victory or anything else. His wife had died when he was in the Pacific, but they had fallen out of love anyway, which was one of the reasons he’d enlisted at age forty-two for a war he had little desire to fight. But she had not been a bad woman, and the fact that he felt no loss at her passing depressed and disappointed him. From his hospital bed in New London, Connecticut, he read books and wrote his memoirs while the younger men, all malaria convalescents, played poker and waited for weekend passes from the ward. In their condition it took little enough to get good and drunk, and by early Saturday night most of them had the shakes so bad they had to huddle in the dark corners of cheap hotel rooms to await Monday morning and readmission to the hospital. But they’d lived through worse, or thought they had. My grandfather watched them systematically destroy any chance they had for recovery and so he understood my father. He may even have tried to explain things to his daughter when she told him of the trial separation that would last only until my father could get his priorities straight again, little suspecting he already did. “Trouble with you is,” my father told her, “you think you got the pussy market cornered.” Unfortunately, she took this observation to be merely a reflection of the fact that in her present swollen condition, she was not herself. Perhaps she couldn’t corner the market just then, but she’d cornered it once, and would again. And she must have figured too that when my father got a look at his son it would change him, ch
ange them both. Then the war would be over.

  The night I was born my grandfather tracked him to a poker game in a dingy room above the Mohawk Grill. My father was holding a well-concealed two pair and waiting for the seventh card in a game of stud. The news that he was a father did not impress him particularly. The service revolver did. My grandfather was wheezing from the steep, narrow flight of stairs, at the top of which he stopped to catch his breath, hands on his knees. Then he took out the revolver and stuck the cold barrel in my father’s ear and said, “Stand up, you son of a bitch.” This from a man who’d gone two wars end to end without uttering a profanity. The men at the table could smell his malaria and they began to sweat.

  “I’ll just have a peek at this last card,” my father said. “Then we’ll go.”

  The dealer rifled cards around the table and everybody dropped lickety-split, including a man who had three deuces showing.

  “Deal me out a couple a hands,” my father said, and got up slowly because he still had a gun in his ear.

  At the hospital, my mother had me on her breast and she must have looked pretty, like the girl who’d cornered the pussy market before the war. “Well?” my father said, and when she turned me over, he grinned at my little stem and said, “What do you know?” It must have been a tender moment.

  Not that it changed anything. Six months later my grandfather was dead, and the day after the funeral, for which my father arrived late and unshaven, my mother filed for divorce, thereby losing in a matter of days the two men in her life.

  They may have departed my mother’s, but my father and grandfather remained the two pivotal figures in my own young life. Of the two, the grandfather I had no recollection of was the more vivid, thanks to my mother. By the time I was six I was full of lore concerning him, and now, at age thirty-five, I can still quote him chapter and verse. “There are four seasons in Mohawk,” he always remarked (in my mother’s voice). “Fourth of July, Mohawk Fair, Eat the Bird, and Winter.” No way around it, Mohawk winters did cling to our town tenaciously. Deep into spring, when tulips were blooming elsewhere, brown crusted snowbanks still rose high from the terraces along our streets, and although yellow water ran along the curbs, forming tunnels beneath the snow, the banks themselves shrank reluctantly, and it had been known to snow cruelly in May. It was late June before the ground was firm enough for baseball, and by Labor Day the sun had already lost its conviction when the Mohawk Fair opened. Then leper-white-skinned men, studies in congenital idiocy, hooked up the thick black snake-cables to a rattling generator that juiced The Tilt-A-Whirl, The Whip, and The Hammer. Down out of the hills they came, these white-skinned men with stubbled chins, to run the machines and leer at the taut blue faces of frightened children, leaning heavily and more heavily still on the metal bar that hurtled us faster and faster. When the garish colored lights of the midway, strung carelessly from one wooden pole to the next came down that first Tuesday morning in September, you could feel winter in the air. Fourth of July, Mohawk Fair, Eat the Bird, and Winter. I was an adult before I realized how cynical my grandfather’s observation was, his summer reduced to a single day; autumn to a third-rate mix of carnival rides, evil-smelling animals, mud and manure; Thanksgiving reduced to an obligatory carnivorous act, a “foul consumption,” he termed it; the rest Winter, capitalized. These became the seasons of my mother’s life after she realized the truth of my father’s observation about the pussy market. She worked for the telephone company and knew all about places with better seasons. At the end of the day she told me about the other operators she’d chatted with in places like Tucson, Arizona; and Albuquerque, New Mexico; and San Diego, California; where they capitalized the word Summer. “Someday …” she said, allowing her voice to trail off. “Someday.” Her inability to find a verb (or a subject, for that matter: I? We?) to give direction to her thought puzzled me then, but I’ve since concluded she didn’t truly believe in the existence of Tucson, Arizona, or perhaps didn’t believe that her personal seasons would be significantly altered by geographical considerations. She had inherited my grandfather’s modest house, and that rooted her to the spot. Its tiny mortgage payments were a blessing, because my mother was not overpaid by the telephone company. But the plumbing and electrical system were antiquated, and she was never able to get far enough ahead to do more than fix a pipe or individual wall socket. And of course the painters, roofers, electricians, and plumbers all saw her coming. So she subscribed to Arizona Highways and we stayed put.

  Until I was six I thought of my father the way I thought of “my heavenly father,” whose existence was a matter of record, but who was, practically speaking, absent and therefore irrelevant. My mother had filed for divorce the day after my grandfather’s funeral, but she didn’t end up getting it. When he heard what she was up to, my father went to see her lawyer. He didn’t exactly have an appointment, but then he didn’t need one out in the parking lot where he strolled back and forth, his fists thrust deep into his pockets, his steaming breath visible in the cold, waiting until F. William Peterson, Attorney-At-Law, closed up. It was one of the bleak dead days between Christmas and New Year’s. I don’t think my mother specifically warned F. William there would be serious opposition to her design and that the opposition might conceivably be extralegal in nature. F. William Peterson had been selected by my mother precisely because he was not a Mohawk native and did not know my father. He had moved there just a few months before to join as a junior partner a firm which employed his law school roommate. I imagine he had already begun to doubt his decision to come to Mohawk even before meeting my father in the gray half-light of late afternoon. F. William Peterson was a soft man of some bulk, well dressed in a knee-length overcoat with a fur collar, when he finally appeared in the deserted parking lot at quarter to five. Never an athletic man, he was engaged in pulling on a fine new pair of gloves, a Christmas gift from Mrs. Peterson, while trying at the same time not to lose his footing on the ice. My father never wore gloves and was not wearing any that day. For warmth, he blew into his cupped hands, steam escaping from between his fingers, as he came toward F. William Peterson, who, intent on his footing and his new gloves, hadn’t what a fair-minded man would call much of a chance. Finding himself suddenly seated on the ice, warm blood salty on his lower lip, the attorney’s first conclusion must have been that somehow, despite his care, he had managed to lose his balance. Just as surprisingly, there was somebody standing over him who seemed to be making rather a point of not offering him a hand up. It wasn’t even a hand that dangled in F. William’s peripheral vision, but a fist. A clenched fist. And it struck the lawyer in the face a second time before he could account for its being there.

  F. William Peterson was not a fighting man. Indeed, he had not been in the war, and had never offered physical violence to any human. He loathed physical violence in general, and this physical violence in particular. Every time he looked up to see where the fist was, it struck him again in the face, and after this happened several times, he considered it might be better to stop looking up. The snow and ice were pink beneath him, and so were his new gloves. He thought about what his wife, an Italian woman five years his senior and recently grown very large and fierce, would say when she saw them and concluded right then and there, as if it were his most pressing problem, that he would purchase an identical pair on the way home. Had he been able to see his own face, he’d have known that the gloves were not his most pressing problem.

  “You do not represent Jenny Hall,” said the man standing in the big work boots with the metal eyelets and leather laces.

  He did represent my mother though, and if my father thought that beating F. William Peterson up and leaving him in a snowbank would be the end of the matter he had an imperfect understanding of F. William Peterson and, perhaps, the greater part of the legal profession. My father was arrested half an hour later at the Mohawk Grill in the middle of a hamburg steak. F. William Peterson identified the work boots with the metal eyelets and leather lac
es, and my father’s right hand was showing the swollen effects of battering F. William Peterson’s skull. None of which was the sort of identification that was sure to hold up in court, and the lawyer knew it, but getting my father tossed in jail, however briefly, seemed like a good idea. When he was released, pending trial, my father was informed that a peace bond had been sworn against him and that if he, Sam Hall, was discovered in the immediate proximity of F. William Peterson, he would be fined five hundred dollars and incarcerated. The cop who told him all this was one of my father’s buddies and was very apologetic when my father wanted to know what the hell kind of free country he’d spent thirty-five months fighting for would allow such a law. It stank, the cop admitted, but if my father wanted F. William Peterson thrashed again, he’d have to get somebody else to do it. That was no major impediment, of course, but my father couldn’t be talked out of the premise that in a truly free country, he’d be allowed to do it himself.

  So, instead of going to see F. William Peterson, he went to see my mother. She hadn’t sworn out any peace bond against him that he knew of. Probably she couldn’t, being his wife. It might not be perfect, but it was at least some kind of free country they were living in. Here again, however, F. William Peterson was a step ahead of him, having called my mother from his room at the old Nathan Littler Hospital, so she’d be on the lookout. When my father pulled up in front of the house, she called the cops without waiting for pleasantries, of which there turned out to be none anyway. They shouted at each other through the front door she wouldn’t unlock.

  My mother started right out with the main point. “I don’t love you!” she screamed.

  “So what?” my father countered. “I don’t love you either.”

  Surprised or not, she did not miss a beat. “I want a divorce.”

  “Then you can’t have one,” my father said.

  “I don’t need your permission.”

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