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


  True, his faith that the world was considerate of him was occasionally undermined, like when his father finally moved into the apartment above the barbershop. Lin had felt that he’d probably missed some important event or discussion that would’ve provided a bridge to the moment when his father appeared at breakfast with his suitcase to explain that he’d be going away for a while. And when he tossed the suitcase into the trunk and drove off in the car, Lin felt even more powerfully the existence of some ghost scene from which he’d been mysteriously and unfairly excluded. He knew that in his mother’s opinion the stupid Harts were holding his father back, whereas according to his father, his mother was a “daddy’s girl”—complaints he’d heard voiced through the heat register. But what had happened to bring things to this current pass? He couldn’t conjure the missing scene, no matter how hard he tried, which begged a question: What if the world didn’t play fair? What if it didn’t care whether he learned its lessons or not?

  One Saturday morning in July, Lin’s mother decided it was time for his haircut, and they’d walked downtown, she dropping Lin off at the barbershop so she could run some errands. As he waited for his turn in the chair, Lin tried to imagine his father’s apartment on the second floor, a place he never had visited. He’d asked about it once, but his father had told him not to worry, he wouldn’t be there that long. As a result, the apartment was somehow less real than it would’ve been had he been allowed to see it; though Lin had no idea why this should be so, nevertheless it felt true. On television he’d seen movie sets—whole streets that were mere facades, doors that led into empty space—and he suspected something of this sort about his father’s apartment.

  The barbershop was quiet except for the snicking of Tony’s scissors and the occasional turning of a magazine page, so Lin was able to hone in on the ceiling and listen for the sound of his father’s footfalls, some sign that reality and not illusion was up there above the shop. After his haircut, with lime-scented cologne stinging the back of his neck, Lin waited outside for his mother and studied the second floor’s unshaded windows and the dark doorway around the corner that led upstairs. Just inside, at the foot of the stair, was a broken beer bottle, which proved that his father didn’t live up there, not really. The fact that his mother never even glanced at the entryway when she returned from her errands suggested the same thing.

  They walked home in silence, Lin trying to think how to ask his mother if she, too, sometimes doubted the actual existence of places and things she’d heard about but never seen. Perhaps it was because he was so deeply involved in this metaphysical query that he felt the world tilt when they turned into their street. There, high up on a wooden ladder and dressed in his painting clothes, Mr. Christie was scraping the eaves of their house, and again Lin registered a ghost scene in which worlds merged dangerously.

  “Good morning, Evelyn,” Mr. Christie called down when he heard them climbing the porch steps below. “How you doing, Linwood?”

  And there it was—the same expectant hesitation that occurred on Sunday mornings when Mr. Christie leaned down the pew with the offering basket, implying some other hoped-for thing.

  “You’ve got a lot done already,” his mother observed, holding a hand up to shield her eyes from the sun.

  “The worse the peeling, the easier the scraping,” Mr. Christie said, as if to suggest that the worse something looked, the easier it was to correct. “The back’ll go slower.”

  “Where’s your partner?”

  “Paul? Oh, he came down with some bug or other. Don’t worry, though. You won’t be charged for two men unless two men are here.” Then to Lin, “That’s some haircut you got there, Linwood.”

  Lin could feel himself blush at being observed so closely.

  “He hates going to the barber lately,” his mother said, and this made him redden even further. Next would she explain why? That he hated sitting in the chair and thinking that maybe his own father was right overhead?

  “Be glad you have to go,” Mr. Christie said, confusingly until Lin remembered that under his Red Sox cap, he was bald. “You should come to one of Lin’s games, Evelyn,” he then said, and Lin could feel his mother bristle. She didn’t like people making suggestions about what she should or shouldn’t do, especially after his father moved out, an event that caused a lot of people to voice their opinions. “Lin’s our star second baseman.”

  “I would, but Carling Field’s so far,” his mother said, “and I don’t have transportation.”

  “Oh,” Mr. Christie said, as if anticipating this excuse. “I could swing by and pick you up. I think there’d be room for all three of us in the truck.”

  “Well, it’s certainly nice of you to offer,” she said, starting inside, as Lin wondered why, if it was such a nice offer, she wouldn’t even entertain it.

  Upstairs, after lunch, Lin watched Mr. Christie from behind the sheer curtains of the front window and tried to imagine the missing ghost scene. Had his mother hired Mr. Christie over the phone or had he called her to ask for the job? And why hadn’t she mentioned that the house needed painting? Outside the window, Mr. Christie’s paint-splattered boots were so close that if the screen hadn’t been there, Lin could’ve reached out to untie them. Strange, he thought, to be so close to another person when that person had no idea you were even there. From where he crouched, he could hear every swipe of the scraper as the paint flecks rained down, many of them coming to rest on the sill. Each time Mr. Christie reached out from the ladder, he made little grunting sounds, and once he said, “There. Gotcha, you little devil.” At that moment Lin realized he himself was, for Mr. Christie, a ghost presence, both there and not there. Would it be possible, Lin wondered, for someone to get so close to him without him noticing? In the barbershop, for instance, would it have been possible for his father to watch him through a small hole in the ceiling? No, he decided, it didn’t work that way. Where the world was concerned—he felt this deeply—Linwood Hart was privileged.

  COST

  “That Howard Christie up there?” his father wanted to know the next day. Their Sunday afternoon was already off to an unusual start, his father having arrived in Uncle Bert’s car instead of the two of them walking over there to pick it up.

  Mr. Christie had finished scraping the front and was painting now. When Lin acknowledged that this was precisely who was on the ladder, his father nodded thoughtfully. “Figures,” he said. “He always was a bird dog.”

  “What’s a bird dog?” Lin asked, but his father had already gotten out of the car. He now stood on the brown terrace, hands on his hips, sighting up the ladder, standing there until Mr. Christie noticed him.

  “Hello, Thomas,” he called down, friendly, like he always was. “You and Linwood off to the lake?”

  That morning after Mass, Lin had mentioned that he hoped this was where his father might take him that afternoon.

  “Didn’t know housepainters worked weekends, Howard,” his father said.

  Mr. Christie chuckled. “Well, it’s kind of a short season, Thomas. You get a stretch of good weather, you need to take advantage.”

  “Well, if that’s your story, you should stick to it,” Lin’s father said. “You wouldn’t be charging my wife any time and a half or anything, would you?”

  “No, nothing like that, Thomas.” Mr. Christie was still smiling for some reason. “In fact, she’s getting my discount parish rate.”

  Now it was Lin’s father’s turn to chuckle. “I might want to see the bill, just to make sure.”

  Mr. Christie turned back to painting now. “I keep an open book. Anybody that wants to can have a look.”

  “Well, I might want to.”

  “You and Linwood enjoy your afternoon.”

  His father looked like he might have liked to continue this conversation, but apparently he couldn’t think of a way, so he got back into Uncle Bert’s car. The key dangled from the ignition, but he made no move to turn it. “Your mother inside?”

  Lin
said she was. His father nodded, staring darkly at the front door. His prediction—that Lin’s mother would kiss his ass before he ever entered that house again—was weighing on him heavily, Lin could tell. He could probably predict—as could Lin himself—what his mother would say if he’d walked in right then: “Did somebody kiss your ass, Thomas? Because I have to tell you, it wasn’t me.” When his father finally decided it wasn’t worth it, he looked over at Lin, really taking him in for the first time. “What happened to you? Join the marines?”

  “Haircut,” Lin explained.

  “No kidding,” his father said. “He call you Linwood all the time?”

  Lin admitted he did.

  “If you don’t like it, tell him.”

  Lin said he didn’t mind. His name, he knew, had always been a bone of contention between his parents. He’d been named after Grandpa Foster, whose own father had also been named Linwood. “I’m just grateful he wasn’t named Jitbag,” Lin had once overheard his father remark. Lin was glad, too. Though he had no idea what a “jitbag” might be, he didn’t care for the sound of it.

  They immediately headed in the wrong direction for the lake, and Lin had just concluded they were in for another long afternoon at his grandmother’s when they passed the street they would have turned on if her house had been their destination. In fact they kept on going right out of town, finally pulling into a used-car lot out by the new highway. In its center was a tiny shack that looked like an outhouse, and a man wearing a plaid sport coat—who’d been leaning back on the hind legs of a chair and reading a magazine by the light of the open door— got to his feet and came out to greet them. “Slick Tommy,” he said wearily, as if the very sight had exhausted him. Quite a few of his father’s acquaintances referred to him as “Slick,” which made Lin wonder if maybe this was the reason he didn’t want to move to Connecticut, where nobody would know his nickname.

  “How about this one?” his father wondered, indicating a bright green Bonneville.

  “Just took it in trade.”

  “And?”

  The man shrugged. “I wouldn’t, if it was me.”

  “I’m not you.”

  “Ain’t that the truth.”

  “What do you need to get?”

  “Twenty-four hundred.”

  His father made a face. “I meant the other price. The one you give your preferred customers.”

  “You know who my preferred customers are, Tommy?” the man said. “They’re the ones who buy cars from me. Not the ones who come in every week and tell me I’m a thief and never buy so much as a hubcap.”

  His father looked around the empty lot. “You want me to wait here while you tend to all your other customers?”

  They took the Bonneville for a ride out on the highway, his father pushing the accelerator all the way to the floor and letting up only when the speedometer hit 85, the engine rumbling and throaty, clearly disappointed when it started slowing. Then they drove over to Uncle Bert and Aunt Melly’s, parking the Bonneville out front. To Lin’s surprise, when his father tooted Uncle Bert himself came out onto the porch (causing Lin to suspect yet another ghost scene), followed by Aunt Melly and all three of their kids, the smallest one toddling right over to Lin and throwing up her arms.

  “She likes you,” Aunt Melly translated. “She wants you to pick her up.”

  Lin regarded the child’s full diaper, her runny nose and crusty chin. When he finally picked her up, the child stared deep into his eyes, gumming and twirling her pacifier provocatively.

  “I don’t know, Tommy,” Uncle Bert said in his whine when his father started the Bonneville up, its engine rumbling and straining like an animal on a leash, drawing the neighbors out onto their sagging porches.

  “It’s got pretty good pep,” his father said.

  Uncle Bert shook his head as if he’d once had a car just like this one and had to shoot it. “Probably gets about eight miles to the gallon. Pop the hood a minute.”

  The next-oldest cousin now wrapped his arms tightly around Lin’s thigh and buried his shaved skull in Lin’s groin, which, for reasons entirely mysterious to Lin, gave him an erection.

  “That’s some haircut you got,” his aunt said. From previous visits Lin knew that she wasn’t about to rescue him from the affection of his cousins.

  “Smells hot,” Uncle Bert said when Lin’s father finally located the latch and lifted the hood. “What are they asking?”

  “Twenty-four,” Lin’s father said.

  “I don’t know,” Uncle Bert said again, still staring at the engine as if expecting it to reach a decision.

  “It’s not nice to touch people there, Bertie,” Aunt Melly said languidly when she noticed that her son, curious about the hard shape in Lin’s pants, was trying to determine its exact size with his thumb and forefinger. Now the oldest girl came over too. Only a couple of years younger than Lin, she stared at him with the same vacant expression her father was using on the Bonneville’s engine.

  “Jesus, Melly,” Uncle Bert whined, finally noticing Lin’s predicament. “Can’t you take them inside?”

  “They get tired of being inside,” Aunt Melly said. “Besides, all that TV isn’t good for them.”

  “Why don’t you let Brian sell you a car?” Uncle Bert wondered. “He’d make you a good deal.”

  “Because then I’d owe him.”

  “So what? He’s your brother. He made me a heck of a deal on the Buick.”

  “Right,” his father said. “As he points out every time you run into him.”

  The vacant-eyed girl now jumped on Lin’s back, wrapped her spindly legs around his waist and covered his eyes from behind with two damp hands.

  “The trouble with you Harts is you’re all stubborn as mules,” Aunt Melly observed as she headed back inside. “Bert, sweetie, what’d Mommy just tell you?”

  “If you’d go to work for him, he’d probably give you a company car,” Uncle Bert pointed out.

  “He’ll kiss my ass before I’ll ever work a day for him,” Lin heard his father predict. With the child’s hands clamped tight over his eyes, he couldn’t see a thing.

  “Well, I don’t know if I’d buy this,” Uncle Bert said. “Not at that price.”

  “Oh, they’ll come down some.”

  “Still.”

  Lin could sense that his father had turned toward him now. “Okay,” he called over, “put those kids down. It’s time to go.”

  The salesman in the plaid coat was bouncing from one foot to the other when they pulled back into the lot. “I was just about to call the cops,” he announced when they got out.

  “The car I left here was worth a lot more than this gas-guzzler.” Lin’s father pointed at Uncle Bert’s Buick, sitting right where they left it.

  “That’s true,” the salesman conceded. “Except it’s not yours. It’s your brother’s.”

  The two men stood looking at the Bonneville. Lin’s shirtsleeve still had a smelly wet spot where he’d balanced the toddler.

  “So, what do you think?”

  “Runs hot, too,” Lin’s father said.

  The man nodded. “That Chrysler you drove last week was twice the car.”

  “Should be, at twice the price.”

  “Well, the better something is, the more it costs. You’ve probably noticed that yourself, Slick.”

  “So what do you really need?”

  “On which?”

  “This one.”

  “The one that guzzles gas and runs hot?”

  “Right.”

  “I suppose I could let it go for two grand.”

  “How about if I was somebody else? Like one of your golfing buddies?”

  “If you were somebody else?” the man sighed. “What a wonderful world this would be.”

  AFFECTION

  Mr. Christie wanted to make a catcher out of Hugo Wentz, until the boy’s father went ballistic at the suggestion. Mr. Wentz drove the Caddy right up behind the backstop, got out and read Mr. Chri
stie the riot act over the fence, as Hugo sat in the front seat with the grim expression of someone who, if allowed to redesign the world to his own specifications, would retain very little of the present one. Only when his father, having told Mr. Christie how it was going to be, got back in the car did Hugo get out, toss his glove over the fence and begin his long solitary trek to the distant gate and then back again, as his father fishtailed through the stone pillars.

  Lin watched the whole thing from second base, wondering first why Mr. Christie allowed the other man to speak to him that way, and then why he didn’t seem to hold it against Hugo when he finally arrived back at the diamond and promptly sat on his glove where he’d tossed it in the grass.

  “Come on out here, son,” Mr. Christie called, then added, when the boy stood up and started walking, “and bring your glove with you. We’re going to try you at a new position.”

  That Mr. Christie treated Hugo Wentz so kindly was puzzling to Lin, who couldn’t think of a single reason why he should. Bestowing affection on a boy that fat, sullen and sarcastic called into question the value of affection in general and devalued the affection afforded boys who’d earned it. Lin understood that Mr. Christie was quick to smile, to encourage and forgive, but there had to be a limit, didn’t there?

  Which was why, when Mr. Christie welcomed Hugo to the pitcher’s mound—of all places—and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder while pointing out home plate to him, Lin found himself disliking not just Hugo but also Mr. Christie, and he made a mental note right then to refuse his offer of a ride home. Since he’d started painting their house on weekends, Mr. Christie had taken to giving him a lift after practice, laying Lin’s bike carefully in the bed of his pickup on top of the canvas duffel bag that contained the bats and balls. A couple of times they’d even stopped at the DQ for soft ice cream. Mr. Christie had a way of asking questions so that Lin didn’t mind answering, and of nodding at all his answers as if they were the very ones he himself would have offered. Never did Lin feel more at the center of things than in Mr. Christie’s presence, which was why, last week at the DQ, a terrible wish had occurred to him before he could prevent it, a wish he’d regretted immediately and which frightened him so badly that, needing to be alone, he’d gone to bed early that night, even though his mother kept coming in to check on him, convinced he was coming down with something. What scared him was that a careless wish, especially from him, might possess some untold power.

 
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