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


  Portia turns her languid gaze on me. “Nothing is a game to Gene,” she says. “He’s very serious.”

  I decide that the best way to befriend my friend is to pretend I like this woman, so I force a smile and nod. “Gene and I go way back,” I tell her. What I mean to say is that I know all too well that for Gene nothing is a game, but it comes out sounding like I understand her husband a hell of a lot better than she does.

  “Then you know,” she says, reaching for his big paw and giving it a squeeze. “It means he’s a proletarian writer laboring in the sweatshop of tough, honest prose. It means he comes from an ugly mill town and that’s who he is and always will be.”

  Gene grins good-naturedly, and I suppose even he would have to admit that this is precisely what the sweater connotes. If he doesn’t like her tone, he offers no sign. She gives him an unpleasant, birdlike peck on his hairy knuckles and says, in a baby-talk voice, “Isn’t that right, sweetie pie?”

  What I’m wondering is whether she’s aware of having been chosen for pretty much the same reasons as the sweater. At fifty, Gene’s still a good-looking man, and women have always been attracted to him. They seem to like his lumbering gait, even like his huge mastiff’s head. He’s always been pursued by graduate students although he has not, until now, allowed himself to be cornered. Of course until recently he’s been married. Even so, it’s revealing, if not particularly surprising, that it’s this woman who has snared him. It’s as if he’s chosen her to reflect his sense of worth. This will also be Clare’s take, I’m sure. And now that I think about it, I realize I’m a little annoyed with her for not having returned.

  I go inside to fetch some cheese and crackers, and when I return, Gene looks up at me expectantly. “You should read Portia’s work,” he says when I set the plate down on the table.

  “I’d like to,” I say, and it’s true, I would, if only to find out whether she’s as unpleasant on the page as she is in the flesh. Writers are often surprising in this respect, and it’s possible that Portia possesses a more generous self that emerges when she’s in the company of people who live in her head.

  “She was the only one in the workshop not looking away,” he explains, a classic Gene comment if ever there was one. A great believer in “staring down the truth,” he admonishes his students not to blink, not ever. Such advice appeals to them, and he has a huge following at the midwestern university where he teaches. He often sees more in his young writers than they see in themselves, and that’s either flattery or faith, depending. In this case he’s explaining why he’s chosen this young woman to be his mate. His twenty-year marriage went south, according to Gene, because Maryanne had never come to terms with who he was and where he was from. The context—his term—remained foreign and strange to her. The spooky part is that I know what he means.

  “Her stories were on a different plateau,” Gene’s saying. “One where pain and loss and betrayal were part of the equation.”

  Portia, who appears to be pondering the truth of this, turns to me and says, “Does that path go to the beach?”

  I say it does, and she scrapes her chair backward along the deck. “Don’t,” she says when I start to stand up, then she goes inside for an old pink towel she must’ve got from the duffel bag. “I’ll be back.”

  “Also,” Gene says, smiling proudly, “she was the only one in the workshop who was impossible to compliment.”

  We watch until Portia disappears into the dunes. “It’s true,” he continues, pouring wine into his glass. “She made me admit she wasn’t beautiful before she’d even go out with me.”

  I fill my own glass with beer, the bubbles springing into existence at the bottom and then racing to the surface. I myself have never made any claims about the necessity of staring down any truths. Indeed, blinking has always seemed to me the most natural, perhaps essential, of human functions.

  And so we sit, two friends on the downside of a notoriously slippery slope. Fifty years old. Then the wind shifts, and we can hear the waves rolling in.

  Because of the surf, we don’t hear Clare until the glass door on the deck slides open and she joins us. She and Gene embrace warmly, and I can’t help smiling. After all, my wife and I have had a twenty-five-year disagreement over him that we’re not even close to resolving. What I’m smiling at is that, at this moment, I could convince her. The things Gene says are often impossible to take seriously in his absence, and later tonight, when Clare and I are alone, I won’t be able to defend him. Right now, though, confined on our small deck with us, his presence and conviction command belief. The same is true of what he writes. Hearing Gene read in public, you are often moved to tears, while on the page these same words lack his power.

  Clare seems to acknowledge all of this when she sees me grinning at her, and in return she makes a face. After she finishes hugging Gene, I get one too, a real hug, as if to apologize for leaving me alone for so long. In a glance at the table she’s taken in that I’ve drunk three bottles of beer, a lot for me these days, and that Gene is on his second bottle of wine. She knows right where we are.

  Though delighted that she’s finally home, I’m unwilling to let her off the hook. “We were about to send out a search party,” I say.

  “I drove out to the point and bought a lobster,” she explains, pouring herself a glass of white wine. “Right off the boat.”

  “Don’t tell me,” Gene says. “Lobster sauce?”

  “If you’re good,” Clare tells him.

  “Dear Lord, make me worthy,” he says.

  “Nobody’s worthy of Clare’s lobster sauce,” I say. “Like grace, it cannot be earned.”

  “Unlike grace,” Gene says, “it occasionally comes my way.”

  The lobster sauce, when I think about it, is an inspired choice, given that it so deftly negotiates the shoals of Gene’s personality. Whereas lobster for each of us would have been a conspicuous display, ill suited to the reunion of the sons of mill workers, the lobster sauce, served over pasta, signifies a sophistication that is nonetheless mindful of who we are. Until you get to know Gene, it’s easy to offend him unintentionally. Which is why I laid in good but affordable Italian wines for his visit. He considers French wines an affectation, and imported beers are always sure to provoke a sarcastic comment. No, Clare’s lobster sauce is just the right thing, its ethnic accent overpowering upward mobility.

  “Should I get started?” Clare asks, more of me than of our guest, though it’s Gene who answers.

  “Relax,” he suggests. “I’m content to anticipate for hours.”

  “Portia is investigating the beach,” I say, since I know Clare must be wondering.

  “We’re still in that beginning stage,” Gene confesses. “Testing limits. Finding out how much is too much. It’s harder for her. She needs to carve out her own territory. To keep herself separate from me, her work from my work. She fears it’s my intention to revise her.”

  Clare and I nod seriously. This is the sort of talk that Clare will mimic to devastating effect once we’re alone. Gene makes such observations so seriously that in the moment of their expression they seem valid. When they’re repeated, in Clare’s voice, I will hear something fundamentally insincere. As we pull up the covers tonight, Gene will seem God’s own fool, stuffed full of psychobabble. The emotional stage he’s describing so plausibly, even generously, will remind us of nothing in our own experience. During the final year of Gene’s marriage, which had ended in an ugly, rancorous divorce, he’d called me several times to explain not only his own emotional stages but Maryanne’s. In fact, he was most eloquent about her pain and rage. “I’m not letting myself off the hook,” he assured me. “I’m a damaged man. I’ve damaged her.” When I hung up and tried to do justice to Gene’s view of things, Clare’s response had been immediate and eloquent. A lip fart.

  The three of us talk agreeably for a while, avoiding the land mines that often punctuate these conversations with Gene. A certain amount of mild criticism does come my
way, starting with his fear that I intend to give up “real work” for writing screenplays. Worse, he can’t understand how I could have quit teaching. Still, these criticisms are couched in flattery. The way Gene sees it, our discipline is full of charlatans and well-intentioned incompetents who not only don’t help but can even do real harm to young writers, poisoning fertile ground. I am one of a handful, he claims, who can do apprentice writers some good. He seems almost to suggest that my defection means that he will now have to take on my students, increase his own burden. I tell him the truth: that when I quit last year, I wasn’t the teacher he remembered from the residencies we’d shared, that I’d grown tired of repeating myself, sick of the sound of my own voice. That’s only part of the truth, of course. I’d quit when I could afford to, something I know better than to say to Gene.

  When Clare finishes her wine, she gets up and announces that she has to get started on the sauce. I follow her inside to get another bottle of wine and a beer from the fridge, but what I’m really after is a moment alone with her. I have sensed an emotional sea change out there on the deck, and when I come up behind my wife and slip my arms around her waist, I can tell from the tenseness in her body that I’m right. I never mind Gene’s gentle reproaches, but Clare always does. She’s already warned me that she will brook no criticism of our house or the fact that we can afford to own it—certainly not from someone who’s getting to use it rent free for two weeks.

  “I’m glad to see you,” I say, kissing her neck and immediately feeling better.

  “I bet you are,” Clare says, peeling the thin skin off a clove of garlic.

  “You’re a good-looking older broad,” I tell her. It’s one of my favorite lines and sometimes it loosens her up. I recall what Gene said about Portia refusing to have anything to do with him until he admitted she wasn’t beautiful. Clare’s needs are pretty much the reverse. She enjoys and always has enjoyed being told that I think she’s lovely. Her enjoyment seems natural to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  “Good-looking or not,” she tells me, “this older broad is getting steamed. If he accuses you of selling out to Hollywood I’m going to put an ice pick through his lung and send him out with the tide.”

  “He won’t,” I assure her, and, since I could be wrong, add, “and neither will you.”

  “You let him get away with too much.”

  “Maybe he’s my conscience,” I suggest, trying the idea on for size.

  When she turns in my arms to face me, I can see she doesn’t think it’s a great fit. And I’m grateful when she says, “Oh, please.”

  I carry the beer and wine out onto the deck where Gene has turned in his chair to look out over the dunes toward the strip of deep blue ocean beyond. Since this is also the direction his wife took over an hour ago, I conclude that he’s gazing into an uncertain future. And I become aware that the incision on the inside of my thigh has started throbbing.

  When I plop back down in my own chair, his trance is broken. “We stopped home on the way here,” he says.

  By this he means the town we grew up in, and I realize how wrong my conclusion was. I should know by now that his concern runs only in one direction, which is toward the certain past.

  Gene pushes his wineglass to the center of the table. “I need a glass of water,” he says, pushing his chair back.

  “There’s bottled in the fridge,” I tell him. “The tap water’s not so great out here.”

  “It can’t be any worse than what we drank growing up,” he says, not unexpectedly.

  The mill where our fathers worked, Gene has told me on the phone, has recently reopened after nearly a decade’s shutdown. For half a century, chemical byproducts were dumped into the river until the water tasted like brass and the fish grew tumors the size of golf balls. As did my father, who grew one of those golf balls in his brain and died a man nobody could recognize, and who himself could recognize nobody, including his son.

  It’s been my intention to nurse this beer, but I’ve nearly finished it by the time Gene returns with his glass of tap water, and my head now contains a seed of distant pain which I can tell will grow and bloom.

  “How’s your father?” I ask, since Gene won’t mention him otherwise. The last I heard, he was still living there in the house where Gene was raised.

  “We visited the oncology ward,” Gene says, throwing me until I realize the “we” here is Gene and Portia, not Gene and his father. “I invited him to come see all the people he poisoned, but he wasn’t interested.”

  Gene’s father had been a foreman and later a shift supervisor, a company man to the marrow of his bones, and it’s this that Gene can neither forgive nor stop rebelling against. Only tenure protects him from being fired from his university, whose policies, political practices and investments Gene protests loudly, in and out of the newspaper.

  “I wanted Portia to see,” Gene says, staring at his ice cubes as if the amount of toxin in them might be gauged by the naked eye. “I was honest with her about who I am. She knows she’s getting damaged goods.” He looks out to sea. “But I wanted her to see the long shadow of the mill.”

  I stifle an unkind smile. For if Gene were to see it, he’d certainly realize that I consider his new wife yet another facet of that shadow.

  Clare slides the glass door open and wonderful aromas waft out onto the deck.

  “Should we go find Portia?” I ask her.

  “We’ve still half an hour at least,” she says, leaving the decision to me and returning to the kitchen.

  “I wouldn’t mind taking a little walk,” I tell Gene. “Just to see if I can.”

  There are three or four houses along the path to the beach, all grander than our own, and I’m grateful that they put our modest property into a context that Gene can appreciate. There’s our kind of money, and then there’s real money. He’s eyeing these houses with undisguised contempt, as if he already knows and loathes who lives in them. As he most likely would. I’ve called several neighbors to explain that strangers will be staying in our house for the next two weeks. I made a special point of alerting a quarrelsome man named Connor with whom I’ve had a couple of run-ins. Our stretch of beach is private by statute, though of course the island’s handful of cops can’t enforce it when people ignore the signs and stroll the three miles up from the public beach. Connor is rumored to have set his dogs on such trespassers, even to have chased them off in his dune buggy.

  When we climb the last dune, I’m pleasantly distracted by the scene before us—the sun a few degrees above the water, miles of deserted sand in either direction, the crashing of the waves. Indeed, it has even broken through Gene’s morbid focus, which is itself on the order of a natural force, like sun and tide and wind.

  “Wow,” he says, taking a deep breath of salt air. “This is just perfect.”

  “I wish,” I tell him. “We had hypodermic needles washing up here last summer.”

  Gene nods, looking almost relieved to hear it. “That’s what people need to realize,” he says, “that no place is safe. That mill gets repeated a thousand times over.”

  So much for interrupting Gene’s focus. I’m scanning the deserted beach for signs of Portia, but there aren’t any. With the sun almost resting on the water, I can’t be sure, but I think I see a solitary swimmer a hundred yards or so down the beach. I’m about to suggest that we head off in this direction when he says, “We could shut it down, the two of us.”

  I blink at this. Gene is watching the waves break, and for a brief moment I wonder what he’s proposing.

  “The city editor would be behind us,” he assures me.

  It dawns on me that Gene’s talking about the mill, and with this realization come two others—that he’s crazy and that his lunacy has stirred something in my settled heart, something that could make a lie of my present life. Or if not a lie, one of Gene’s famous stages. This moment might, if I so chose, mark the end of my domestic stage. My children are grown and I could leave th
e rest of this existence—my wife, this house—and complete the circle by returning home with my old friend to wage that final, unwinnable battle with the past.

  Gene’s looking at me keenly, as if reading my mind. “We could do it,” he says, then adds, after a pause, “Maybe we’re the only ones who could.”

  And I do know what he’s thinking. The last time I was home, the shabby little downtown bookstore had a huge display of our books, Gene’s and mine, in the window. These days, if I was recognized on the street there, it would be due to my vague resemblance to the man on the book jackets, with so many books given as Christmas presents, as reminders that the mill isn’t the whole story. That a town this size could produce not one but two authors, however modest in their accomplishments, is a matter of civic pride.

  “What makes you think they’ll do things the way they used to?” I ask, trying to sound objective. “What about the environmental regulations?”

  Gene snorted. “Dumping was never legal.”

  “Still.”

  “They’re getting bold again. Think about it. Republicans running everything. They think they have a mandate. It’s okay to poison people again.”

  We have come a fair distance along the beach. I turn to make sure Portia hasn’t materialized behind us, but see there’s only our footprints.

  Then Gene says the wrong thing, as he always does, eventually. “It’ll give you a chance to square things with your old man.”

  What this is about, I realize, is not my father but his own. This public act would be Gene’s final repudiation of the company man. Back when we were in grad school together, testing the possibilities and rewards of literature and activism, he asked me late one night after we’d drunk too much bourbon and smoked too much dope, “How can you sit here with me?” When I confessed to not having a clue why I shouldn’t, he said, “You’re telling me it doesn’t bother you that my old man poisoned yours?” My response—“Not a bit, Gene”—had been the wrong one, and not just because he’d misunderstood my flip drunken tone. By denying that he shouldered any inherited guilt, I’d refused him the possibility of expiation. By giving me a chance to “square things” he now means for me to show the bastards that the world has changed and they don’t have the power anymore. We’d make my father’s eternal rest easier, and show Gene’s that in the end he’d backed a loser.

 
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