The Whore's Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  That night, once I was acting like I’d fallen asleep, my mother slipped out. She was gone only a few minutes, just long enough, it later occurred to me, to make a phone call.

  Unfortunately, the next couple days provided considerable evidence to support my mother’s theory that we’d died and gone to hell. As we came down out of the green hills of eastern Oklahoma, what shimmered below was a truly hellish landscape—flat and dry and empty, as large as the ocean off the Maine coast, but brown. Suddenly the temperature was in the nineties, and our rain-soaked upholstery smelled musty. We didn’t have air-conditioning, so we rolled down the windows and let the desert air thunder in around us like so many angry demons. The noise made impossible the conversation we’d lacked the heart for since Joplin, and the turbulence turned my mother’s hair into a rat’s nest of tangles. She didn’t try to make out like it was the wind of freedom, either. She still wasn’t wearing makeup.

  As far as my mother was concerned, Oklahoma had even less to recommend it than Missouri. In fact, its single virtue seemed to be that its inhabitants didn’t offer an unusual pronunciation. I tried my best to raise my mother’s spirits, but she stared straight ahead at the empty landscape with palpable loathing. What had happened in Missouri seemed to have made her a fatalist, and now she seemed incapable of even fear, her most dependable highway emotion. Since Maine every time we were passed on the highway by a semi and felt the sensation of being vacuumed beneath its huge wheels, she tensed, bracing for the imagined impact. No more. She seemed not even to notice the big trucks as they roared past, blaring air horns at us, some of them. Her lack of concern was spooky, because I couldn’t tell whether the miles had taught her that there was less danger than she feared, or whether the vandals of Joplin had demonstrated how vulnerable we were, despite all her care and planning.

  We made fewer stops now because there was next to nothing, according to my mother, worth stopping for, though she did take grim satisfaction from paying a dollar to a toothless old man in Texas for the privilege of peering down a shallow, bowl-shaped well at a dense knot of lethargic, dusty rattlesnakes. However dispiriting, though, the snakes weren’t our biggest problem as we blew like a hot wind through the panhandle. The glass was, and had been for days. Naturally, we’d done the best we could with the tiny slivers of broken glass that had rained throughout the car’s interior. The company that replaced the windshield had vacuumed—once to their own satisfaction, and then again to my mother’s—but the glass had worked itself deep into the seams and creases of the cloth seats, until we coaxed them out with our tender flesh. The microscopic shards insinuated their way into our haunches and thighs and behind our knees, registering first as mild discomfort, a squirming and scratching inability to get settled. Only later, starting the first night out of Joplin, did we realize what was happening. My mother was in the shower, and I heard her yelp as the hot, soapy water bit like gasoline into the scores of tiny cuts. Between us, we went through a whole box of Band-Aids that night.

  “I don’t know what to say, sweetie,” my mother admitted when she finally switched off the lamps. “We’re losing blood.”

  “Actually, it’s a lot like being married,” she explained days later as we neared the New Mexico state line, referring to the multitude of nicks that still had us squirming in the front seat of the Ford. “You don’t quite know whether to shit or go blind.”

  The vulgarity made me look over at her hopefully, because it meant her spirits were on the mend. My mother enjoyed swearing, but it required effort and imagination; so, when she was depressed or exhausted, her speech became timid and mild.

  “Your father’s not a bad man,” she continued, broaching the subject we’d been avoiding for about two thousand miles and which had me pretty puzzled. I mean, I knew my father wasn’t a bad man. He’d never been bad to me, and I’d never witnessed him being bad to her, but her desire to flee did imply there was something wrong with him.

  “It’s just that living with him—being married to him— is like being covered with these little cuts all the time. There’s no big gash you can show anybody, nothing they’d believe would really hurt. But these damn little nicks, they suck the blood right out of you.”

  The desert rolled by as my mother’s hair danced in the blowing air.

  “I mean, really,” she said after we’d gone a good ten miles, each of us pondering the man we’d fled. “Is that goddamn washer necessary?”

  This was one of my father’s quirky habits, manipulating a ring washer on the tip of his tongue as if it were a Life Saver candy. I have to admit, it could be a little unnerving, the first time you witnessed it. At the hardware store, his advice was sought on a great many projects, and my father was a thorough thinker who approached each new problem as if it were his own. He’d listen quietly, nodding at every complication or detail, and then he’d go into a pensive trance as he worked through various solutions, leaving his customer to his own leisurely contemplation. Sometimes he wouldn’t say anything for a minute or two, his jaw working thoughtfully, and when his mouth finally opened it would not be to speak, but rather to reveal the silver washer on the tip of his tongue—as if the customer were being invited to reach out and take it, or my father were producing the very part needed to complete the job. Thus he gave the impression of being a man full of nuts and bolts.

  Since this little trick might suggest an intellectual sluggishness, I feel compelled to point out that he was neither stupid nor without a sense of humor, nor unaware that some of his quirks drove my mother crazy. He knew that having a metal washer in his mouth made her teeth hurt, and so when a playful mood stole upon him, as it sometimes did, he’d attempt to joke her out of what he considered an unreasonable aversion. When he’d driven her to distraction, he sometimes liked to take her in his arms, whisper something sweet in her ear, bend down to kiss her and then, just before the kiss was to be delivered, show her the washer on the tip of his tongue.

  The washer was not my father’s only annoying habit. He ruined various games by losing sight of their objectives and obsessing over minutiae. Playing Scrabble, for instance, he wasn’t content to consult one dictionary when challenging a word of my mother’s, but would refer to as many as he could locate, getting sidetracked whenever he ran across an unrelated word that interested him. “Here’s something,” he’d say, furrowing his brow, while the other players at the table stared at him in quiet disbelief until my mother yanked the dictionary from his hand and hissed at him, “Play, goddamn it.” Delighted, my father would grin and remark that even after all these years of marriage, he could still get her goat.

  Much as I loved him, he was beginning to get my goat too. He liked to help me with school projects, rightly convinced that I was careless and missed things. Mostly, I wanted to be done, so when I got a glimpse of the finish line, I bolted for it; whereas my father loved to linger among the facts and pore over the library books I brought home. “Now here’s something,” he’d say again and again, though it was seldom a relevant something. Whenever he helped me, in fact, my grades suffered from his need for inclusion. Two-page reports weighed in at a bloated nine pages, and longer papers swelled to near monograph length. Then he’d go to school to argue the grades my teachers gave me, again losing sight of his objective by revealing that the work was more his than mine. “Slow and steady wins the race,” he always assured me, a remark that never failed to elicit a sarcastic retort from my mother. “Lenny, you just think you won. All the other contestants finished long ago and went home.”

  “Your father lacks a sense of . . .” she explained to me now, as we rolled into the outskirts of Tucumcari, New Mexico. “Sense,” she finally said. “He lacks a sense of sense.”

  Explaining my father’s character deficiencies really cheered my mother up. By then it was early afternoon, and we’d planned to drive on through to Flagstaff, but Tucumcari seemed to be having a festival of some sort. A banner stretching across the highway announced “Cowboy Days,” and the streets w
ere full of men in cowboy hats and boots and jeans and shirts with metal snaps instead of buttons. A country western band was set up under an awning nearby, and some people were dancing in the hot sun.

  “This is more like it,” my mother said immediately, pulling into a motel that had a sparkling swimming pool and a sign out front in the form of a twenty-foot-tall cowboy boot. She pointed up at it as we pulled our suitcases out of the trunk. “That’s what your father doesn’t have the sense to pour piss out of.”

  I frowned. All this talk about my father had made me lonesome for him. I’d have given a lot to see him standing there, grinning at me, working his silly washer on the tip of his tongue.

  “That’s western humor,” my mother explained. She’d been west once before, years earlier, after her parents had sold their house in Maine and moved to Phoenix, where they lived in a trailer park with a big swimming pool and lots of other retirees from cold climates. “Your father don’t have the sense to pour piss out of a boot. Try saying it.”

  I didn’t want to try it, and I said so.

  “Sure you do,” she said, and it was clear to me that we were going to stand there holding our suitcases in the blazing sun until I played along.

  “Dad doesn’t have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot,” I said.

  She contemplated my sentence. “Not ‘doesn’t have,’ ” she said. “We’re in the West now. There’s no such thing as grammar. It’s ‘He don’t have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot.’ Try again.”

  Once I’d said it to her satisfaction, we lugged our suitcases into the lobby, where she confronted a man in a cowboy hat at the desk. “I sure hope you ain’t full up,” she said. “We just come all the way from Missour-uh.”

  Walking down the hall to our room, she chortled. This was one of the best moods ever.

  We spent the afternoon poolside, my mother in a new bathing suit, the only two-piece I’d ever seen her wear. At first we had the deck area to ourselves, but by midafternoon we had company and by four-thirty every chair was occupied, even the ones that didn’t fold down. The pool had a diving board that pretty much guaranteed my happiness. I spent the afternoon showing off, doing flips, cannonballs, jackknives and what I termed crazy dives, which were mostly a matter of making grotesque faces before I hit the water. Still, at the edge of my exhilaration was a remnant of my loneliness, and this afternoon reminded me of another the summer before when we’d visited friends of my mother’s who lived in Virginia and had a swimming pool of their own. My father fancied himself a diver, but that was because he couldn’t see himself. The rest of us could, and he had my mother and her friends in stitches. The upper half of his body worked fine, but every time he entered the water, his legs formed a wide V. Informed that his feet were not together, as he imagined them to be, he kept trying, yet each time the V got even wider. He’d emerge, beaming, and say, “Better, right?” sending the rest of us into convulsions. “I could feel my ankles together that time,” he insisted.

  “Then how come we saw them flying apart?” my mother said, still laughing.

  He appealed to me, the only one of the party, he seemed to imply, that he could trust. “What do you say? Together or apart?”

  Now, in Tucumcari, I wished I’d lied. I could tell he hated the idea of looking ridiculous. But I’d told the truth, and so, despite my daredevil excitement here in New Mexico, I worried that I, too, was a ridiculous sight, and that perhaps I might grow up to be a man like my father.

  As the deck area filled up, I could see that my mother, who seemed to possess every ounce of grace allotted to our family, was getting looks from men who found excuses to go the long way around the pool, past her chaise longue. She was wearing dark glasses and reading a magazine, but I knew she noticed them as well, and I knew how much it pleased her. Finally I quit the diving board to go over and join her, imagining that this was what my father would want me to do.

  She must’ve had a similar thought, because when I plopped myself down beside her, she looked up and said, “Hi, sweetie. You come over here to protect me?”

  “I’m tired of diving,” I said.

  “I guess this suit’s cut too low,” she said after another man strolled by with a long look. She demonstrated with her index finger what she meant. “I didn’t realize until I put it on.” This sounded insincere even to me.

  Later, as we were gathering up our things to return to our room, the same man came back. He was tall and might have been considered handsome, but his legs and torso were bizarrely pale, in stark contrast to his face, neck and arms. Talk about ridiculous men, I thought.

  “Well, I just got to ask, darlin’,” he said to my mother. “What’s with all the Band-Aids?”

  We were both dotted with small circular Band-Aids on our legs and lower backs, though most of mine had come off in the pool. To my surprise, my mother told him the whole story about the windshield. I thought she made it longer than it had to be, and funnier than she’d thought at the time.

  “It’s a crazy old world, that’s for sure,” the man agreed. “But a good-lookin’ woman like you shouldn’t be traveling alone.”

  “I’m not alone,” my mother said, which I took to be a reference to me. Apparently the man did too, because he looked at me then for the first time, and something about the way he sized me up made me feel like he wasn’t standing corrected.

  Our room opened onto the pool area, and when we’d crossed the hot cement and let ourselves in, I noticed, closing the door behind us, that the man was still watching us from across the patio.

  The restaurant we went to that night was decorated with wagon wheels and leather saddles and harnesses. The waitresses and the cooks, who grilled steaks over an open-pit barbecue, all wore neckerchiefs and checked shirts that looked like they’d been made out of tablecloths. You could choose the size of your steak and how you wanted it cooked, but then you were through choosing. All the steaks came with baked potatoes and beans and garlicky toast.

  A little sign on every table explained that the biggest of the steaks, a T-bone called the Monster, was free if you could eat it all. And this was what the huge man in the booth next to ours had ordered. It was brought to his table with a great flourish of bells, on a platter about the size of the one my mother used for the Thanksgiving turkey. About two inches thick, the steak barely fit. Having cavorted in the pool all afternoon, I was famished, unable to imagine a steak I couldn’t eat. Yet here it was. One look convinced me. The big man seemed undaunted, though, and when the waitress set a little clock on the table and set it for half an hour, the man wordlessly dug in, sawing methodically, until the platter was a pool of blood, eating as if there were no particular hurry. Considering his task, I thought he had excellent table manners.

  “Don’t stare, sweetie,” my mother whispered, but everyone else was, and pretty soon she was staring too. Paying no attention, the man devoured half of his T-bone in the first ten minutes, took a sip of water, consulted the clock and slowed down.

  At this juncture, a waitress brought my mother a cocktail she hadn’t ordered, then pointed across the room at the man who’d spoken to us that afternoon by the pool. He raised his glass in a silent toast, and my mother raised hers. “Hold up your Coke, sweetie,” she told me. “Be polite.”

  I didn’t, though. He hadn’t bought me my Coke, and I didn’t feel like being friendly. Besides, I was suddenly sure he had followed us to the restaurant.

  At the next table the big man was eating more slowly now, and the little clock seemed to be ticking away faster. He cut the steak into small pieces and chewed them thoughtfully, beads of sweat glistening on his forehead and upper lip. With only five minutes left on the clock, he still had about a quarter of the steak to go; maybe another pound and a half. People at nearby tables began shaking their heads. He was a goner, you could tell.

  But then he mopped his brow with his napkin and dug in again at nearly the same pace he’d started with, as if he had two stomachs, like a camel, and he’d
just engaged the second. He didn’t panic. The large pieces of bloody beef just entered his mouth and disappeared. The last bite went in with ten seconds left on the clock, and by the time the buzzer went off, he’d balanced his knife and fork on the edge of the plate and pushed it away, brushing off his hands with the satisfied air of a man who’d just finished a laborious but not especially complex task. A cheer went up when the waiter confirmed that the big T-bone had indeed been finished within the allotted time, and thus the man’s dinner was on the house. When the applause died down, he looked over—we were still staring, I’m afraid—and said, “How do you do. I’m Clarence.”

  It hadn’t occurred to either of us that a man who could eat a steak that big would be capable of speech. My mother was first to answer. “That’s some appetite you’ve got there, Clarence.”

  He seemed willing to take this as a compliment, though he was not at all boastful. “I do this here about once a month,” he explained. “It’s good for business, and the owner is a friend of mine.”

  “Giving away five pounds of free steak is good for business?” my mother said.

  “You bet,” Clarence explained. “When people see it can be done, they want to try.”

  Right then, on cue, there was another flourish of bells as one of the massive T-bones was delivered to a man several tables away.

  “They’ll sell another four or five of those tonight and not one of ’em will be free. Plus everybody has such a good time watching that they’ll tell the story to everyone from California to Maine.”

  “We’re from Maine,” I offered.

  “Long way from home,” Clarence observed. “You didn’t come that far just to watch me eat a steak, I hope.”

  My mother and I introduced ourselves then, Clarence shaking hands with me first, then my mother. “Nice to meet you, pretty lady,” he said.

  “And I’m Bill,” said the man from the pool, who’d materialized just then at my elbow. He was wearing tight blue jeans, and his cowboy boots, with ornate stitching and pointed toes, reminded me of the motel’s neon sign. My mother introduced the two of us, then added, “And this is Clarence.”

 
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