The Whore''s Child and Other Stories by Richard Russo


  “We’ll be checkin’ out early,” Major Robbins explained. “I don’t think we could take another night in this place,” he said, glancing around the room contemptuously. When it became clear that the professor hadn’t gotten this, he said, “You didn’t hear that caterwauling last night?”

  Snow, even more confused, wondered how this half-deaf major could possibly have heard June’s grief.

  “You’re lucky you’re up here on the third floor,” the man said, rolling his eyes. “I don’t know what’s wrong with our hostess, but she bawled the night away. The wife and I are right over her bedroom.”

  “The poor woman,” Snow said.

  “Well, yeah. Sure, but Christ Almighty.”

  “Would you like to come in? My wife just—”

  “Yeah, I saw her go,” Robbins interrupted. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. That’s some sunburn you got.”

  “I’m feeling better now,” Snow said, though in truth he was still feverish, and when he touched the tender skin along his forearm, his fingerprint shone white as a scar.

  “I’m glad,” Major Robbins smiled skeptically. “Anyway, I came up to tell you I saw that book of yours. Down in the library? It looked interesting.”

  “I’m told it’s passé,” Snow said.

  The major dismissed this with a wave. “I always thought it would be really satisfying to write a book. Leave something behind for people to remember you by. Like history, almost.”

  The two men shook hands then, and Snow closed the door and listened to the major lumber down the two flights of stairs, a kinder man than he’d imagined. Instead of lying back down on the bed and risking a feverish sleep, he went over to the window and looked down in time to see the Robbins foursome dart through the trellised arch and head down toward the harbor, carrying their canvas duffel bags. They were dressed in shorts and white cotton sweaters and deck shoes, spry, all of them, for their age.

  It was still difficult for Snow to credit the events of the afternoon. He couldn’t decide whether what had transpired was sudden, or if for years it had been approaching in increments so slow as to be undetectable as motion to the human eye. How long the world had remained tilted! How slowly his rationality had returned, and how little comfort trailed in its wake. The figure on the beach had intuited his blind confusion before he himself could understand it. “You wait right here,” it had instructed him—unnecessarily, since he lacked both the strength and the equilibrium to do otherwise. He’d watched the figure spring into a breaking, thigh-high wave, and when the water receded—taking with it much of the dried clay—he’d stared, uncomprehending, at the miracle. Even after the next, larger wave completed the transformation and the young woman emerged glistening from the sea, he still couldn’t make it work.

  She had a name—already forgotten—as well as a boy-friend, and once clothed, they’d taken him by the elbow and guided him up the beach. They pointed to each woman they passed who conceivably could’ve been his wife, careful to ask if he was sure, because he remained confused and disoriented. “I don’t think so,” he answered after examining one woman with heavy, sagging breasts, another with round, fleshy hips, a third with the wrong color hair. In truth, he was terrified of not recognizing the woman he’d been married to for thirty years, telling them no, and then being wrong. The sun made him feel faint and distant from his own body, and after each new woman proved to be someone else, he’d lost interest in the search, certain that June herself was gone.

  In the end it was June who saw them coming, saw her husband looking as if he would surely collapse were it not for the young couple supporting him on either side. She’d risen tentatively, then hurried toward them.

  He had seen her without truly recognizing her, occupied as his wandering mind was with the problem of how to explain his delusion, of how to make anyone understand that he’d met Death in the figure of this young woman and been granted what he now felt to be a temporary reprieve. Nor had he thought of a way to apologize to his wife, any more than he had on that terrible day when he and David Loudener had found her, lost and forlorn, staring into that vacant storefront window.

  No, June had come swimming into his ken too soon, making him aware of the two young people who were propping him up. And so, with a world of difficult, perhaps impossible things to say, he’d uttered something so cruel that it was easy. “Cover yourself, June,” he’d instructed her. “For God’s sake.”

  And so now, Paul Snow, professor emeritus, author of three biographies and a collection of essays, stood at the third-floor window of the Captain Clement waiting for his wife to return, as dusk gathered in the street below. It was foolish and arrogant, he had to concede, to think you could imagine the truth of another human life, to penetrate its deepest secrets, as he had been credited with doing in his book on Emily Dickinson. What, in the end, could he know of her heart? Maybe the young man they’d hired to replace him was right to scoff. But there were things you could know, even if you didn’t want to. Pain, humiliation, fear of inadequacy—these were knowable things. He had known them, felt and shared them, all at once, when he’d told his wife to cover herself. But despite his flaws, he wasn’t a different species. Maybe he’d forgotten who June was. Maybe he’d never known. But how exquisitely he who had caused her such pain had felt and shared it in that moment, and was sharing it still.

  Down in the empty street he saw a woman who looked like June, though he couldn’t be sure, not anymore. She had stopped at a crosswalk, though there was no traffic and no signal, and seemed uncertain whether to head up the street toward him or in the opposite direction. Whoever the woman was, she appeared to be listening, as if to the distant sounds of the sea, perhaps imagining how it felt to be borne gently aloft on a wave.

  Poison

  I’m not surprised to see that Gene’s driving a ten-year-old Volvo, that it’s a drab olive green, that it’s dirty and bruised-looking. And I’m not surprised that his new wife in the front seat is decently in between homely and pretty. Like the wife Gene recently divorced, this one’s the sort of woman of whom it might be said that she’d be pretty if she made an effort. That she makes absolutely no effort is no doubt part of what makes her acceptable to Gene. When she gets out of the car and stands squinting in the sunlight, I see she has the sooty coloration of a mulatto, though I doubt Gene would have failed to mention it if she were black. More likely she’s Italian, like he is.

  I make a conscious effort not to prejudge her on the basis of what mutual friends have said. “Grim” is the adjective that comes up most often. If Clare were here, I’d say, “She certainly looks grim,” to which my wife would reply, “No, she looks like someone who’s ridden halfway across the country with Gene.” I wish Clare were here. I could use a hug.

  When Gene gets out of the car, he looks grim himself, which makes me wonder if they’ve been arguing and their arrival at our door has necessitated a truce neither of them really wants. One of the things I’ve heard is that Gene’s new wife is publicly contemptuous of him, and this woman certainly looks capable of such behavior. But that’s unfair. I remind myself that it’s late afternoon, which means that they’ve probably been waiting in the ferry’s standby line since morning, which in turn means that they’ve seen at least three ferries come and go without them. To see that big ferry dock and know you’re in the wrong line, well, it isn’t easy. It makes you think of all the other boats you’ve missed, the other things that required reservations you didn’t know how to make, or refused to make on principle. And it’s no fun sitting there in the hot summer sun trying to gauge what cannot be gauged: how many no-shows there’ll be, how many standbys will get on, how many times the boat will come and go without you to the place you want to be. Clare and I have warned Gene to be prepared. “It’ll be a struggle,” I told him. “It may be more of a struggle than it’s worth.”

  “I want to see you,” he insisted. “And I want you to meet Portia.”

  So, they are here, early. I have jus
t enough time to change out of the shorts I’m wearing and into a pair of pants that was hanging on a hook inside the closet door. I start downstairs to meet them, but not before I see Gene bend stiffly and a little painfully at the waist—a sure sign of our shared middle age—and then glance up at the second story of our cottage, as if he’s intuited I’m up here somewhere. He’s looking at the master bedroom, next to the room I’m in, the one I use as a study. I instinctively step back from the window before he can spot me.

  What struck me is what always strikes me when I see Gene again after a long time. He has a head like a mastiff. It’s huge, even compared to the rest of his bearlike body. His graying, close-cropped hair emphasizes that prodigious skull. Clare and I differ on the question of what Gene’s head is full of. Hypocrisy and bitterness, she thinks, whereas my vote always leans toward injury and rage. We agree on self-loathing, though Clare considers this a sign of his intelligence, while I do not.

  We embrace in the doorway, Gene and I, and in that burly hug I am genuinely glad to see him, never mind that I’ve been dreading this visit. And I can tell that he’s truly glad to see me, so I don’t pull away—partly because I’m content to be hugged by this old friend, partly because when we’re finished I’ll have to hug Gene’s new wife. In this, it turns out I’m mistaken. Portia pointedly ignores our heartfelt hello and goes over to the sliding door that opens onto the deck and looks out across the stirring grass of the dunes. The ocean beyond is the bluest it’s been all summer, almost as if it’s been saving this richest, most intense and embarrassing shade for their arrival.

  “So,” she says, nodding at the view, which is, I admit, breathtaking, “this is how successful writers live.”

  Clare and I bought the cottage two years ago. We’d vacationed on the island for a week or two every summer while the children were growing up, always setting a day aside to look at property we knew we’d have a hard time affording. That we couldn’t afford it was something our realtor, Mr. Plumly, had gleaned, and each year he took us around to look at houses with a marginally increased sense of resignation. He seemed to understand that what we described as “our range” was not, in fact, possible for us now, but might be one day, if everything went right. Though he never questioned our right to hope, he clearly saw us as a long shot, at best. Each year he showed us half a dozen new prospects, devoting an entire afternoon to the task, somehow not wanting to just cut us loose—and in doing so set in motion the sort of unlikely harmonic convergence of good fortune that we’d been waiting for.

  At the end of those afternoons we’d always sit in the parking lot near his office, looking out across the harbor, the masts of anchored vessels as still as in a postcard. He always asked us how things were going. He knew I was a writer, and apparently had read, or tried to read, one of my books, since he seemed to know what I was doing wrong. “More sex,” he advised. “More violence. Violent sex and sexy violence.” He claimed to check the best-seller list every time he visited the village bookstore, hoping to see that one of my books had slipped on (by mistake, he seemed to imply).

  In truth, we were probably doing better than Mr. Plumly imagined. For all his realtor’s intuition, he couldn’t have guessed that he was dealing with such fiscally conservative people. Because neither Clare nor I had any experience of money, we never imagined we’d have very much, and when it started coming in, we couldn’t believe it would continue to. We were careful with it, suspicious of it, and tried not to get used to it, preparing for the inevitable day when it would be gone. We even discovered that our fathers had the same favorite saying: “Money talks. It says goodbye.” We had children and college expenses, and knew that everything cost more than you thought it would, and figured the future held more of the same. So, as we sat in the harbor parking lot each summer contemplating the decent advance I’d be getting for my next book, maybe even the possibility of a small film option, we ended up feeling our own reservations as well as Mr. Plumly’s reservations about us, and would decide yet again that this was not the time. On our way back to our rental house we made gentle fun of our realtor and ourselves. “You need more sex,” Clare would say, to which I would reply, “More violence.”

  And then Mr. Plumly’s long shot came in. A young fellow who’d never published anything before wrote a novel that mysteriously crept onto the list. More mysteriously still, the studio that bought the film rights decided I was the man to write the screenplay. “You’re the only man in America who can do this,” the producer told me. “You’re the only one who knows what the fuck it’s like. You can write this son of a bitch from the inside.”

  He was referring not just to my half dozen mid-list novels and two unproduced screenplays, but to my blue-collar background in a mill town. The tough-guy profanity was meant to suggest that he was hip to guys like me who could write from the inside. “How about the author?” I suggested for the sake of argument. “It’s his book. I bet he could write it from the inside.”

  “He’s twenty-eight,” the producer groaned. “Twenty-fucking-eight.”

  “Okay,” I conceded. There wasn’t much point in arguing that an author mature enough to write a good novel might also be able to draft a good screenplay. And besides, I’d just be talking myself out of the job.

  “Besides,” he added, “you’re perfect. You’d be absolutely fucking perfect if you were Italian.”

  “I am,” I told him, “on my mother’s side.” This happened to be the truth.

  “No shit,” he said, stunned by this revelation, this unanticipated good fortune. “Like I say”—he slipped into Hollywood black dialect here—“you the man.”

  As it turned out, I was and I wasn’t. My first draft was hailed as brilliant. What it needed—and only this—was a sharpening of focus. Too many characters. Where had all those characters come from? Well, I said, from the novel. In fact, there were even more of them than I’d used. “Let’s see if we can’t lose the mother,” the producer advised. “She’s in the fucking way. She can die of cancer before the story begins. In fact, the movie opens with her funeral. Bingo bango, we’re there, right in the credits. That works.”

  “It might,” I said, “if we didn’t care about her son’s motivation.”

  The more focused second draft was even more brilliant, and all it needed now was a little doctoring, and the producer said he even had a studio guy in mind to handle that purely cosmetic stuff. Smooth. You had to admire it. It didn’t occur to me until after I hung up that I’d been shit-canned, that I was no longer the only man in America who could do this job. As it happened, the script doctor wasn’t up to the task either, and six months later the project was in turnaround. Everybody involved was out on his ass, including the producer, who apparently wasn’t the man either, at least not in the eyes of the studio’s new head. A funny place, Hollywood. Here I’d worked on the project for almost a year and didn’t have a thing to show for my participation, except for a third of a million dollars. More than I’d made on my six novels combined.

  The house Mr. Plumly wanted us to buy with all that money was a three-story contemporary on the southern tip of the island, left unfinished when the real estate market slipped into recession and the builder went belly-up, leaving the house’s innards—plumbing, electric, drywall—exposed. “Visualize it,” Mr. Plumly advised us, the impressive sweep of his hand taking in all the exposed plumbing and electrical conduits. We were surveying the shell of a house from the uppermost of its three wrap-around decks, the ocean a stone’s throw below. Kicking a dead bird under a sheet of plywood, he then guided us through the house’s twelve cavernous rooms. “You can lowball him and get the property for two hundred, spend another two finishing the house, and when the market rebounds you sell it for a million and put over half a million in your pocket.”

  It was momentarily tempting, the way things sometimes can be when viewed through eyes not your own. But we opted instead for a two-bedroom, gray-shingled Cape out-island, secluded at the end of a narrow, rutted dirt
lane, among rolling hills and orchards that sloped down toward the ocean. Clare and I agree about most important things, and this, clearly, was what we wanted. It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine the huge contemporary finished, I told her, “just that I can’t imagine myself living in it.”

  Clare had given me one of her wry smiles when I said this. “I know what you can’t imagine,” she said knowingly. “And what you really can’t imagine,” she said, “is Gene visiting us there.”

  There is a cool midafternoon breeze out on the deck, and Gene has pulled on a ratty, moth-eaten sweater from the navy-issue duffel bag we’d hauled from the Volvo into my study, where there’s a foldout couch. Clare and I are leaving tomorrow for Europe where we will rendezvous with our son, who’s pretending to study there. Once we’re gone, Gene and Portia can move into our bedroom, though I’m not sure they will. Gene, a writer of subtle, knowing short stories, will be sensitive about climbing into our bed with his new young wife. On Clare’s pillow he will sniff something unwelcoming, perhaps even disapproving, and I’m not sure what fragrance he’ll find on my own.

  “Gene has sweaters without holes in them,” Portia says languidly, taking a sip of beer and tilting her head over the back of her deck chair, her long hair hanging free. She shakes it, then straightens up and studies Gene from beneath heavy, hooded eyelids. My own presence on the deck, I suspect, is not strictly necessary to their ongoing drama. Portia already seems perfectly at home, and to her the pillows in our bedroom will smell of bleach and fabric softener, nothing more. “He thinks of this as his Thoreau sweater. The badge of welcome poverty.”

  Gene is drinking white wine and munching sunflower seeds from a baggie he got from the car. “Thoreau was a fucking tourist,” he remarks. “Poverty was a game to him.”

 
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