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


  “It’s a good one,” his father told him, as if that explained why. “So take care of it, and don’t leave it out in the rain.”

  “I won’t,” Lin promised.

  “Okay then,” his father said, apparently relieved to get these issues cleared up. After dinner, they drove back to the house where they’d all lived together until that fall, when his father moved into the apartment above the barbershop. When Lin started to get out, his father said to hold on a minute, and they waited there at the curb for several minutes. What they were waiting for, Lin supposed, flexing his new glove with both hands, was for his mother to notice the car and invite his father to join them for the rest of Christmas Eve. Being Catholic, they were separated, not divorced. His mother’s position was that his father could come back and live with them again as soon as he grew up, but not until. His father had predicted that his mother would kiss his ass before he’d ever walk through that door again. Both of these, Lin had concluded, were highly unlikely events.

  “Well,” his father said, staring at the house, “Merry Christmas then.”

  MATHEMATICAL PROBABILITY

  For the first week, Mr. Christie divided the team into three groups and held separate practices: the pitchers and catchers one day, the outfielders the next, then finally the infielders. Two or three boys idled around each base, awaiting their turn to field a grounder. With so many boys, it would’ve taken quite a while between turns, even if Mr. Christie hadn’t kept dropping the bat and pulling on his mitt to demonstrate the proper position to field a ground ball. Lin paid attention for as long as he could, but then allowed his thoughts to wander. What had been puzzling him for some time was mathematical probability as it applied to his coach. The problem was this: Mr. Christie was one of four ushers at the eleven o’clock Mass that Lin and his mother attended on Sunday. Each week she gave her son the envelope—Lin happened to know there were two dollar bills sealed inside—for him to deposit in the long-handled wicker basket, but how did it always happen to be Mr. Christie leaning into their pew? Always arriving just before the services began, Lin and his mother had to take seats wherever there was room. Although the church had four aisles, no matter where they ended up it was always Mr. Christie who accepted their offering, and he always gave Lin a wink as if to acknowledge a special bond between them.

  Before Lin could come to any conclusions about what this bond might be, he heard Mr. Christie call out, “Look alive out there, Linwood!” This hurt his feelings because it sounded like a criticism even before anything had actually been required of him. But once the ball leapt off Mr. Christie’s bat, he realized that it wasn’t a criticism but a warning. The baseball seemed to generate sound not only by thumping along the hard infield dirt but also by cutting through the air. There was time for just two quick thoughts. The first came in the form of a question: If Mr. Christie was so fond of him, why had he hit the ball so hard? The second arrived as a decision. True, it was clearly his name that had been called, but it seemed to Lin that he should feign confusion and pretend that he thought this ball rightfully belonged to the boy standing next to him. In the split second it took him to step aside, he very nearly convinced himself that this heartfelt wish was fact; there was also just enough time for the ball to find an infield divot, change direction and express, it seemed to Lin, its innermost desire, which was to belong to Linwood Hart and not the boy standing next to him. When it hit him squarely in the forehead, Lin sat down hard, right on top of second base, the ball suddenly inert on the ground between his legs.

  Being hit didn’t hurt as much as it surprised and frightened him. What scared him most was the sound the impact had made inside his head, as if a snare drum had been struck between his ears, and the sound continued to reverberate as he sat there on second base, his eyes watering, his nose suddenly running like a faucet. Even worse than the sound was the odd sensation of things moving inside his head at the moment of impact. He’d always imagined that the human head, or at least his own head, was solidly constructed and all of a piece, whereas it now appeared that things were actually floating in it, that he himself was one of the things that floated there. Until being struck by the baseball, he’d always considered his head a safe place to hide out. Now he wasn’t so sure.

  “That’s the way to get in front of it,” Mr. Christie called out encouragingly. “Stand up and dust yourself off, Linwood. Here comes another one.”

  ENEMIES

  Namely Hugo Wentz. A sixth grader, one year ahead of Lin at St. Mary’s, Hugo joined the team almost two weeks into the season. The rules were specific: no one whose application form was not handed in by the deadline would be allowed to play American Legion, but an exception was made for Hugo because his father owned Elm Photo. In fact, it was rumored Mr. Wentz had enrolled his boy himself, so he wouldn’t be such a sissy. Lin recalled a day that winter when the fifth- and sixth-grade boys had been combined for gym class to have their fitness evaluated. Many of the boys had been able to climb hand over hand up a thick rope all the way to the rafters, and Lin had made it over halfway. Hugo was the only boy who hadn’t been able to pull himself up the rope at all.

  The other members of the team were already playing catch, waiting for Mr. Christie to show up with the bats and bases, when Lin heard a vehicle bumping along the rutted access road. He turned, expecting it to be Mr. Christie’s pickup, but instead it was a brand-new 1963 Cadillac with tail fins, coming toward them too fast and stirring up a cloud of dirt when it stopped. Hugo sat in the front seat, as far as possible from the man behind the wheel, who put the car in Park and stared across the seat at his son.

  From where he stood against the fence, Lin had a good view of the Wentzes, who greatly resembled each other. Mr. Wentz was a florid man, all belly and jowls, who owned several small, unrelated businesses in town. Perhaps because he was always flitting back and forth between them, Mr. Wentz managed always to convey a cosmic impatience. What he seemed impatient about right that instant was that his son was just sitting in the car, looking straight ahead, almost as if he hadn’t noticed they’d stopped, or as if the arrival at their destination had to be announced, like on a train. Finally, after his father’s lips moved, Hugo got out of the car, closed the door behind him and gazed impassively at the chain-link fence. Though there was no gate, the fence was no more than waist high. Still Hugo regarded it as if it were twenty feet tall and strung at the top with barbed wire. After a moment, the window of the Cadillac rolled down and Mr. Wentz called, “Forget something, Hugo?”

  Apparently his son was still grappling with the problem of the fence, and the expression on his face suggested he couldn’t handle both it and his father’s question at the same time. Either that or he’d concluded that the two things were somehow related. Was his father asking him if he’d forgotten how to fly? Only when Hugo finally turned around did he see his father was holding his mitt. Mr. Wentz, disgusted that the boy had made no move to fetch the glove, Frisbeed it at the boy, who juggled it, then dropped it. The mitt remained there on the ground while father and son stared at each other. At last, Mr. Wentz said, “What?”

  “There’s a fence,” Hugo said.

  His father rubbed his temples with his thumbs. “So climb it,” he said, and then roared off. Hugo watched the Cadillac until it shot between the stone pillars that marked the entrance to Carling Field, then tossed his glove over the fence. Lin assumed he was going to take his father’s advice and climb it, but he was wrong. Instead, Hugo shambled its entire length, down to the hinged gate a hundred yards away, where he let himself in and then shambled back. To Lin, these two gestures made no sense. If he wasn’t going to climb the fence, why toss the glove over it? Having watched both his going and his coming, Lin suddenly felt grateful that Hugo Wentz was on the team, if only for the purpose of comparison.

  When the pathetic circuit was finally completed, Lin pretended to be deeply involved in evaluating the team’s talent, perhaps even deciding on a starting lineup, so he wouldn’t have to
play catch with Hugo Wentz, who probably threw like a girl. Still, after a minute or two, he sensed the boy’s presence behind him.

  “Hey, Hart. You got a ball?” Hugo wanted to know.

  Lin shook his head, surprised that the other boy knew his name and had chosen to use it.

  Hugo Wentz snorted unpleasantly. “Figures,” he said, turning away again.

  It nearly took Lin’s breath away, that one word. Just that quickly, it seemed, he’d made an enemy.

  GRANDMA HART

  Shortly after moving into the apartment above the barbershop, Lin’s father had gotten into a car accident. By the time he got around to telling Lin’s mother about it, she’d already heard. “Totaled, huh?” Lin heard her say into the telephone. “Well, now you’re a foot, like me.” That not having a car made a person into “a foot” made a kind of sense to Lin, who saw no reason to suspect he hadn’t heard his mother correctly. The expression certainly made more sense than another of her favorites, which was along the same lines. Often, befuddled, she’d proclaim she didn’t know whether she was a foot or horseback anymore.

  His father claimed that not having a car was no big deal. His apartment was only a few blocks from the hotel where he tended bar in a waist-length jacket and bow tie, his shiny black hair combed straight back, looking wet even when it was dry. It did mean that they had to borrow Uncle Bert’s car when they visited Grandma Hart, who lived alone now, since Lin’s grandfather died, one town away. Because his father and Uncle Bert weren’t speaking, it also meant that it was Aunt Melly who came out onto the porch to hand over the keys. “You could come in and have a cup of coffee, Thomas,” she said, cradling her belly. Lin tried to remember if he’d ever seen his aunt when she wasn’t pregnant.

  “Not likely,” his father replied. “Wasn’t for somebody who’ll remain nameless, I wouldn’t be here at all.”

  Lin understood that he himself was the nameless person, and also that the reason his father and his uncle weren’t speaking had something to do with the car—but also that it was not just the car, according to his mother, who had little use for any of the Harts, claiming that to them, fighting was as natural as breathing.

  A couple of months before, Uncle Bert had phoned Lin’s mother to complain. “Listen to me carefully, Bert,” he overheard her say. “You’ve got nothing I want, and that includes your car.” When apparently Uncle Bert tried to backtrack, she continued, “If you don’t want your brother to borrow your car, tell him, not me.”

  Lin could hear his uncle’s whiny voice leaking out of the receiver.

  “I don’t care what he says, Bert. If he’s using it to take Lin places, that’s between you and him. If he owes you money, same deal. You’ve known him a lot longer than I have, and if you’re dumb enough to give him anything you want back, you’ve only yourself to blame.”

  “Lin might like to come in and see his cousins,” Aunt Melly said now, though nothing could have been further from the truth. Lin’s cousins, all three of them, were nasty creatures with streaming noses and sagging diapers who wanted him either to pick them up or let them sit on his lap, which always left a smelly wet spot on his pants.

  “Besides, you could say hello to your brother and patch up this silliness.”

  “I’m right here, if he wants to patch anything up,” his father said. “And he knows where I live. If I can walk all the way over here, he can drive over there.”

  “Have it your way, then,” Aunt Melly sighed. “I’m too worn out to try to convince either one of you. I used to be pretty before I met your stupid family.” And suddenly it seemed to Lin that she might cry.

  “You still are,” his father said. “Why do you think you’re knocked up all the time? Because you’re ugly?”

  This brought a small smile. “Yeah, but what about later, when he decides I’m too fat.”

  “Come find me, darlin’,” his father suggested. “Looks like I’ll be free.”

  “I might, just to see the look on your face when you open the door and see me standing there with four brats in tow,” Aunt Melly said, though Lin could see that she’d cheered up when she tossed his father the keys.

  “I’ll have it back by supper,” he said.

  At Lin’s grandmother’s, things began where they always did. “Why don’t you ever come visit your grandmother?” was what she wanted to know. Lin understood that the old woman was really asking his father, not him, but it was still weird and embarrassing to stand there in her kitchen and hear this same question first thing.

  “Give it a rest, Ma,” his father said, sinking onto a kitchen chair. “We just walked in the door and already you’re at it.”

  Lin didn’t like his grandmother’s house, where it was always too warm and full of food smells he didn’t recognize—because according to his mother, she was “ignorant” and insisted on cooking with onions and never opened the kitchen windows to air the house out.

  “Your grandmother’s not going to live forever, you know,” she said, still fixing him with her stare. “When she’s dead, you’re going to wish you came to visit her.”

  No I’m not, Lin thought.

  “Tell her she’s full of it,” his father suggested, stretching his long legs out in front of him, crossing his feet at the ankles. Since Lin had not been offered a seat, he was still standing there in the middle of the bright kitchen. “Tell her if they dropped an atom bomb right in the center of town, she’d be the only survivor.”

  The old woman looked her son over. “What’s that?” she finally said, pointing to a purple swelling under his right eye. Lin was glad she’d asked, because he’d been wondering about it himself.

  “Nothing.”

  “Nothing,” she repeated. Then, “Why don’t you go work for your brother Brian?”

  “Why don’t you mind your own business?”

  “He called yesterday. Said you could come to work for him whenever you want.”

  “Good. It’s settled, then,” his father replied cheerfully. “When I want to, I will. Right now, I don’t want to. Right now what I’d like is a cup of coffee, if that’s not too much to ask.”

  “I hope you don’t talk to your mother like this,” the old woman said to Lin. “Is this any way for a man to talk to his own mother?”

  “Go ahead and take her side,” his father suggested. “If you don’t, she’ll be mean to you too.”

  “You want a soda?” she said. That was the only good thing about Grandma Hart’s house. The refrigerator was always full of orange sodas, a brand he’d never seen anywhere else. At his other grandmother’s he got one glass of name-brand cola, after which it was fruit juice. Here he could drink all the off-brand orange soda he wanted.

  Later, back home, sitting at the curb in Uncle Bert’s car, his father was pensive, as he usually was when they returned from their weekend afternoons together. “They’re not bad people, you know,” his father said, though when he said it he was staring at the house where he used to live, so Lin didn’t understand who he was talking about. And he couldn’t help wondering if Uncle Bert had called his mother again, since instead of returning the car when he’d promised, his father had driven to a tavern where he knew everybody and their dinner kept getting interrupted by people who wanted to know where Lin’s mother was and how much longer they were going to stay separated. “You’d have to ask Evelyn,” his father said. “Call her up right now, in fact. If you find out anything, let me know.”

  “Who?” Lin said now, responding to his father’s remark about bad people.

  “Your grandmother. Your Aunt Melly.”

  Lin shrugged. It wasn’t like he’d ever thought they were bad people.

  “Your Uncle Bert’s a pain in the ass, but he’s not a bad guy either.”

  Lin nodded. Actually, he liked his uncle the best of all his father’s relatives, though his mother was right: his whiny voice was just like a girl’s.

  “It wouldn’t kill you to pretend you liked them, is all I’m saying.”


  Lin considered this. His impression was that he had been pretending this very thing.

  “Just because your mother doesn’t like somebody doesn’t mean you can’t,” his father continued. “Just because she thinks she’s better than everybody doesn’t mean you have to.”

  “Okay,” Lin said, suddenly on the verge of tears.

  “So, is she seeing anybody?”

  “Who?”

  “Who.”

  “Mom? No.”

  “She ever say anything about me?”

  “She says she doesn’t want to be married to a bartender.”

  He nodded. “Well, that’s a switch. Her favorite people all used to be bartenders. That was before you, of course.”

  Back inside the house, his mother called to him from the kitchen. “Is he gone?”

  “No,” Lin said, peering through the blinds.

  “What’s he doing?”

  “Just sitting there.”

  “He’ll get tired of it,” she said.

  GHOSTS

  Lin understood, sort of, about the past—for instance, that his mother was different before he was born. True, it was odd to think of her as somebody whose favorite people were bartenders, but to Lin, this was further evidence that his dramatic entrance into the world had changed everything. It felt, sometimes, as if the world must’ve been patiently waiting for him to get born so that real things could start happening—kind of like the difference between the drills at school and an actual fire. He knew that things could and did happen even if he wasn’t there, but he still had the impression that the truly important events tended to occur only when he was there to witness them. Last year, for example, when his parents argued late into the night about maybe moving to Connecticut where there were good schools and his mother could make better money teaching, Lin always woke up and listened to their voices coming up through the heat register. It was possible, he supposed, that he’d slept through other arguments, but he imagined that by their very nature (as witnessed by the fact that he’d not been there to take them in) they would not be essential to his understanding or survival. Surely life played that fair, at least. The world was there for him to learn from and learn about. Otherwise, what was the point?

 
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