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


  At least that wish was something he didn’t have to worry about now, not after seeing Mr. Christie’s hand on Hugo Wentz’s shoulder. Having finished his instructions to the inattentive boy, Mr. Christie now trotted in from the mound and donned a catcher’s mask, telling another boy to grab a bat.

  Lin found it even easier to dislike his coach and sometime friend in the stupid catcher’s mask, the man who just last week he’d wished was his own father.

  “Look alive out there, Linwood,” he called out jovially, though Lin was aware of having done nothing to merit this warning. When Hugo Wentz’s first pitch sailed halfway up the backstop, provoking laughter throughout the infield, Lin joined in, not really caring if Mr. Christie might be disappointed in him.

  PERSONALITY

  One Saturday in early August, Lin and his mother took the bus to New York and then a train out into the Connecticut countryside, where her parents lived in a house with a swimming pool. Before they left, she’d gotten into an argument with his father because the trip meant he’d miss his afternoon with Lin. They were taking the trip, his mother explained, so they wouldn’t have to listen to Mr. Christie banging his ladder against the house all weekend, peering into whatever windows he was painting around. It was like living in a fishbowl, she said, though Lin had never seen Mr. Christie look anywhere but at the brush massaging paint into the dry wood. The job was taking too long, she also claimed, because Mr. Christie was doing it by himself. He said his regular partner was still sick, but she’d seen the man on the street and he looked perfectly fine.

  Unlike Lin’s other grandmother, Grandma Foster didn’t pester him constantly about why he didn’t come to visit her more often. She seemed to understand that there were things a ten-year-old boy couldn’t be held responsible for. Unlike Grandma Hart’s house, Grandma Foster’s was big and airy, and with the windows thrown open, breezes ruffled the curtains even on the warmest days. That two women the same age could be so different was baffling to Lin, who liked to think that age and experience would naturally lead to similarity. How did human beings turn out so different? The older people got, it seemed to Lin, the less they agreed on. According to his mother, the reason was personality, which, to his way of thinking, didn’t so much explain the problem as just give a name to something that still didn’t make any sense.

  He spent most of Saturday afternoon in the pool doing cannonballs off the diving board while the adults talked inside. He quit only when the sun slanted behind the roof of the house and the breeze turned cool. When he complained of hunger, his mother reminded him that Grandma and Grandpa Foster ate late, like civilized people. They liked to have cocktails first. His grandfather must have overheard part of this conversation, though, because a few minutes later he appeared on the deck with a big platter of steaks, and the new gas grill puffed to life; to ease the wait, Lin was given a stick of pepperoni to gnaw on, but only after he’d washed his hands and face.

  That night, as always, he slept in the downstairs den, on a sofa that folded out into a bed. The room had its own television, which he was permitted to watch as long as he wanted, but his hours in the pool had wearied him and before long he was asleep. He woke up once—someone had come in to turn the TV off—at the sound of voices from the foot of the stairs. “It’s not about the money,” he heard his grandfather say. And then, “What you saw in him in the first place is what I’ll never understand.”

  When they returned home late the next afternoon, his father was waiting for them at the bus stop in Uncle Bert’s car. Lin’s mother had been preoccupied during the entire journey, and when she saw the Buick, she looked like this was the last straw. “What’re you doing here, Tom?” she said when he picked up her bag.

  “What,” he said, dropping the suitcase on the curb as if he’d suddenly lost his grip on the handle, “you’d rather take a cab? If you do, just say so, because there’s one right across the street.”

  “I thought we’d agreed you weren’t going to meet us.”

  “Really?” he said, tossing the bag into the open trunk and then slamming it shut. “You thought we agreed about something?”

  Lin sat in the backseat, his mother up front with his father. “How’s Linwood the Third?” his father said. “Still convinced he’s better than everybody?”

  “Don’t start,” his mother warned him.

  “Daddy’s little girl,” his father chuckled.

  To Lin’s surprise, his mother didn’t say a word. In fact, she didn’t speak again until they pulled up to the curb behind Mr. Christie’s pickup. “Good Lord,” she said under her breath. “He’s still here.”

  “Well,” his father replied, “that’s love for you.”

  This remark made no sense at all to Lin, who wasn’t sure he’d heard it right.

  “You want me to get rid of him?” his father offered.

  “No. I just want him to be finished.”

  “Well, I’m going to take my son out for a plate of spaghetti, if you have no objections,” he said. “You’re welcome to come too, if you like.”

  “What I’d like,” she replied, getting out of the car, “is to go upstairs, climb into bed, fall asleep and wake up far away.” Lin knew exactly what she intended to do when they were gone. She would put Jo Stafford on the record player and let “The Wayward Wind” play over and over.

  “Things don’t have to be like this, Evelyn,” his father called, watching until the door grunted shut behind her. Then he swiveled around to look at Lin. “You want to come up front?”

  Lin shrugged. Nobody, he’d noticed, ever asked him about anything that had any consequence.

  “Fine,” his father said. “Stay there, then.”

  Actually, Lin realized, that wasn’t quite true. Mr. Christie not only asked his opinion but also listened carefully to it. Why then, when at that precise moment the man came around the corner of the house, balancing the big wooden ladder expertly on his shoulder, his hand half raised in a good-natured wave, did Lin pretend not to see him?

  SPAGHETTI

  They were no sooner seated in Rigazzi’s than Lin’s favorite waitress, the one who enjoyed giving his father a hard time, came over. “I was beginning to think you’d died, Slick,” she said, one hand on an ample hip. “You never come in anymore.”

  His father pretended to read the menu. “Well, Jolene, I keep running into people I don’t like,” his father said, indicating the far end of the restaurant where Lin’s Uncle Brian sat eating spaghetti with his family.

  “Speaking of which,” Jolene said, “he wants to know if you’d like to join them.”

  “Yeah?” his father said. “Tell him I know how much he’d like to spoil my dinner, but I’m not going to let him.”

  “I’ll say no such thing,” she assured him.

  “Suit yourself,” his father said amiably. “I’ll have the—”

  “Rigatoni and sausage,” Jolene finished for him.

  “Rigatoni and sausage,” his father confirmed as she wrote it down.

  Now she raised an eyebrow in Lin’s direction. When he opened his mouth to speak, she said, “Spaghetti and meatballs,” wrote that down and then snatched the two menus. “I could make other predictions, too, but I’d just depress myself.”

  Lin wouldn’t have minded joining his Uncle Brian’s family. His cousin Audrey, who was fifteen, had breasts and was about the prettiest girl Lin had ever seen—so pretty, in fact, that he couldn’t even hold it against her that she’d never spoken a kind word to him. His cousin Mackey, who was two years older, did play Wiffle ball with him, but only on the condition that he got to bat first, which meant in effect that Lin never got to bat at all, since he could never get Mackey out. Uncle Brian’s problem, according to Lin’s father, was that he was a blowhard, and in his own opinion, Mackey was well on his way to becoming another.

  “You didn’t know that, did you,” his father said when Jolene was gone.

  “Know what?”

  “That Howard Christie’s in love
with your mother.”

  Lin thought about the way the collection basket paused each Sunday after he’d put in the offering envelope.

  “You thought he just enjoyed painting houses on the weekend?”

  Exactly. That was exactly what Lin had thought. Either that or he enjoyed Lin’s own company.

  “Ask him, if you don’t believe me.”

  Lin tried to imagine circumstances in which he might ask any such thing, and failed utterly.

  “What’d you eat at your grandfather’s?” his father asked after Jolene had brought their salads.

  “Steak,” Lin said around a mouthful of iceberg lettuce.

  “Figures,” he said, nodding thoughtfully. “Your grandmother still drinking?”

  “Drinking what?” Though he knew. He’d seen her going back into the kitchen to visit the silver shaker, seen her careful, deliberate gait after dinner, smelled the strange sweetness on her breath when she kissed him good night, the same sweetness he sometimes smelled after his mother listened to Jo Stafford too long.

  “Too bad,” his father said. “Of course you’d drink, too, if you were married to Linwood the Third. He still trying to convince your mother to divorce me?”

  His father had stopped eating and was watching him. Lin would have liked not to answer, but he knew that wasn’t an option. “He isn’t going to give her money anymore,” he said, immediately smarting at this betrayal of his mother, especially since his father seemed cheered to hear it.

  “I figured that’s how she was staying afloat. How’d she take that news?”

  But across the restaurant, his aunt had gotten to her feet and headed to the ladies’ room, and Uncle Brian, having finished his meal, also rose and came across the room. He was about the same height as Lin’s father, but otherwise seemed much larger and his face was always purple, as if the top button of his shirt was too tight.

  “Hey there, big guy,” he said, offering his huge hand to Lin.

  “Stand up when you shake hands,” his father suggested, also rising to his feet. “Your uncle’s big on manners.”

  Uncle Brian chuckled pleasantly, as if at a fine joke. Lin was surprised when the two men shook hands, both of them acting like they couldn’t have been more pleased to run into each other.

  “You didn’t want to eat with us?” Uncle Brian said, sounding genuinely hurt.

  “You were about done, and we were just starting,” Lin’s father explained.

  “Would’ve been my treat.”

  “Well, big brother”—Lin’s father’s smile got thin—“I may not have as much money as you, but I think I can manage a couple of spaghetti dinners.”

  “You ever see anybody as stubborn as your old man?” Uncle Brian wanted to know. But before Lin could respond, he’d already turned back to his brother. “That Bert’s Buick you pulled up in?”

  “What of it?”

  Uncle Brian held up both hands in surrender. “Nothing. I just heard you were looking for a car, that’s all. Why don’t you let me help you out?”

  “I’ll think about it.”

  Uncle Brian sighed. “Why does it always have to be this way with you, Tommy, will you tell me that? What the hell did I ever do to you? What did anybody ever do to you?”

  Jolene arrived with their food then, setting the plates down hard. “If this is going where I think it’s going, then take it outside.”

  “You want to go outside, Tommy?” Uncle Brian was saying now. “Is that it?”

  His father just grinned back at him. “I only want two things, Brian. I want to sit down and eat my rigatoni, and I want you to go fuck yourself.”

  “Outside,” Jolene warned, her voice rising now.

  “Don’t let your spaghetti get cold,” Lin’s father said. “I’ll be right back.”

  Spaghetti was one of Lin’s favorite foods because it was both delicious and thought-provoking. They’d been coming to Rigazzi’s for as long as he could remember, and his father had taught him how to twirl spaghetti on his fork instead of cutting it up. The trick, he’d learned, was to start with just a few strands; otherwise you ended up with a big ball of pasta twine that either wouldn’t fit in your mouth or gagged you when you tried to chew. Even though he now regarded himself as an expert twirler, he still liked it that you couldn’t predict, when you pulled on one strand, which strand on the opposite side of the plate would snake toward your fork through the giant tangle. Even when you’d eaten most of it, you still couldn’t tell what was connected to what. This complexity and surprise was nearly as delicious as the actual taste.

  Lin had eaten only a few forkfuls when his cousins suddenly crowded into the booth with him. Mackey arrived first, slipping onto the bench Lin’s father had vacated and flipping up the window’s wooden slats so he could peer outside, leaving his sister to lean across Lin. Her long dark hair brushed his nose, her body so close he could smell whatever it was she was wearing—perfume, maybe, or just girl’s soap.

  “They’re fighting,” Audrey whispered, and sure enough, when Lin looked out through the open slats, his father and Uncle Brian were grappling with each other in the parking lot. His father momentarily managed to get him in a headlock, but then Brian backed him into a parked car, hard, breaking his grip.

  “Dad’ll kick his ass,” Mackey said confidently, letting the slats fall back into place and heading for the front door. When the door opened, Lin heard a far-off siren, and saw Jolene hang up the phone behind the cash register.

  Her brother gone, Audrey slid into the opposite bench and regarded Lin critically. “Fighting is stupid,” she said, again peering out through the slats, opening them just wide enough to see through herself. After a minute she let them fall shut again. “The police are here.” When she sighed, her breasts heaved. “What are you looking at?” she said, having caught him.

  Lin thought it better not to say.

  “How old are you?” she wanted to know, her eyes narrowing.

  “Ten.”

  “You’re just a kid,” she said contemptuously. “You shouldn’t be interested in things like that.”

  He supposed this was true, but said, “Things like what?”

  “Like what girls have under their sweaters.” This was an electrifying conversation, but then she went and spoiled it. “You don’t see us going around staring at your zipper, do you?”

  Lin could feel the blood rush to his cheeks. Blessedly, his aunt came out of the ladies’ room just then, looking surprised to find their table empty, her daughter sitting with Lin, her husband, son and brother-in-law nowhere in sight.

  “Shall I tell my mother where you were looking?” Audrey said.

  Lin was about to beg her not to when he was visited by a sudden, mysterious intuition. She wouldn’t tell. She was relishing his discomfort, much as Mackey enjoyed never letting him bat. “Go ahead,” he said, surprising himself. To the best of his recollection, he’d never in his life done anything so bold, and it was thrilling to see immediately that his intuition had been correct. When his aunt arrived at the booth, Audrey said languidly, “Dad and Uncle Tommy are fighting in the parking lot.”

  “How absurd,” his aunt said, ignoring Lin entirely. “Your father knows he’s got a bad back. He won’t even be able to straighten up tomorrow.”

  In a few minutes Lin’s father slid back into the booth opposite him. He had a split lower lip, and there were a few drops of blood on his shirtfront. “You all done?” his father said, seemingly amazed that his fight had lasted long enough for his son to eat his entire dinner. He stabbed a rigatoni and chewed it thoughtfully, wincing when the tomato sauce stung his cut lip. “You don’t have to tell your mother about this, you know.”

  Lin nodded. His father dabbed his swollen lip with a napkin, wincing again, then pushed his plate away and studied him carefully.

  “Your cousin Audrey’s sure growing up, isn’t she?” he finally observed, giving Lin a chill.

  HATE

  Hugo Wentz’s father might have bulli
ed Mr. Christie into making a pitcher of Hugo, but that’s where it ended. Though he attended each game and heckled relentlessly from the stands—“Give the other kids a chance, Coach. You afraid you’ll lose your job?”—Mr. Christie continued to do things his own way. He did not like to put his younger boys in pressure-packed situations where they’d feel terrible if they failed, so he was adamant about not putting Hugo into any game without a cushion, preferably a large one. Being ahead or behind by a dozen runs or more, Lin had noticed, made it a Hugo situation.

  Since their confrontation on the first day of practice, the two boys had spoken to each other only once. And the conversation, initiated by Hugo, had been one-sided. “My dad knows your dad from the hotel,” he said, grinning unpleasantly. “My dad tips your dad.” Since then, when neither was in the game, they sat on opposite ends of the bench. At first their mutual aversion had been wholly satisfying to Lin, who didn’t want to be associated with a boy so pitifully lacking in baseball skills—who looked so little like a baseball player. But as the season wore on he began to suspect that Hugo was equally content with the arrangement. Ever since that first practice when Lin had been struck in the forehead by the grounder, he’d remained timid about any ball hit in his direction, and batters continued to beat easy groundouts because he was afraid to charge the ball. As a result he thought he detected a triumphant curl of Hugo Wentz’s lip. By midsummer he’d even given up his nightly game of snagging line drives in his room since his heroic fantasy was no longer sustainable. Every time he dove recklessly and smothered a hard-hit liner, landing fully extended on his bed, he’d see Hugo’s lip curl and know the truth—that a rubber ball wasn’t a baseball, his soft mattress not a hard-packed infield. It was ironic, of course, that his enemy should be the reason both that he no longer loved baseball and that he didn’t quit. For as long as Hugo remained on the team, he, not Lin, would be regarded as its worst player. The pure joy was gone, though, and when the final game of the season rolled around, Lin was relieved.

 
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