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


  American Legion games, usually high-scoring affairs, were seven innings, and it wasn’t until the bottom of the sixth, with a two-run lead, that Lin was inserted as a pinch hitter. The Stop & Shop coach was making similar end-of-season moves, and the boy brought in to pitch to Lin walked him on a full count. By the time the inning was over and Elm Photo took the field, their lead had swollen to four runs. Spirits were running high until Mr. Christie was seen handing the baseball to Hugo Wentz, who started to mope out onto the field without his mitt and had to be called back in for it.

  “Bear down now,” his father called out from the bleachers as he warmed up. “Those sissies can’t hit.”

  But of course they didn’t have to. Hugo Wentz never had any trouble throwing the ball over the plate during warm-ups, but something happened as soon as a boy stood there with a bat in his hands. You could actually see it happening. The first pitch or two might be close to the strike zone, but after that Hugo’s eyes would glaze over as if he was watching the game on some inner screen that only he could see and which bore little relation to the one being played on the field. His pitches got wilder and wilder, one in the dirt, the next halfway up the backstop. Unless Lin was mistaken, there was for Hugo just one physical reality once he was on the mound: the sound of his father’s voice in the bleachers, a voice that did not take long to grow impatient. Only by plunging deep into something akin to a coma was the boy able to sever that last link with reality.

  After loading the bases without throwing a single strike, the coach of the Stop & Shop team called his next batter back to the on-deck circle for a conference, and though he was whispering, it was painfully clear to everyone on both sides of the diamond that his instructions were: Don’t swing.

  “He’s got no stick, Hugo,” Mr. Wentz shouted. “Just throw the damn ball over the plate. He couldn’t hit it off a tee.”

  Good advice, Lin thought, but Hugo was no longer, strictly speaking, there to hear it, and his next four pitches were even wilder, the last eluding the backstop completely. The runner on third trotted home, the bases still loaded, nobody out. Next batter, same result.

  “Go settle him down, Coach,” Mr. Wentz yelled. “Don’t you know anything?”

  In fact, Mr. Christie was already on his way to the mound, but when Hugo started to hand him the ball, he refused to take it. Instead he turned the boy around so they faced the outfield, their backs to the stands. “Look here, Hugo,” Mr. Christie said quietly. “I’ll take you out if you want, but I think you can get this man out.”

  “I hate him,” Lin heard Hugo Wentz say. “I hate him!” And with that he threw the ball down onto the mound so hard that it ricocheted all the way to first base in the air.

  Mr. Christie called for the ball, and the first baseman tossed it back. Then the coach handed it back to Hugo. “I want you to throw it just like that,” he said, “except at the catcher’s mitt.”

  Hugo accepted the ball reluctantly. “We’ll just lose,” he said.

  “That wouldn’t be so bad,” Mr. Christie said. “We’ve lost other games. But if you throw it just like that, like you’re real, real mad, we’ll win. Can you throw it like you’re mad?”

  “Christ on a crutch, Hugo, play ball!” his father yelled. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

  “Okay,” Hugo said, taking Lin by surprise. “I can do that.”

  Hugo’s next pitch shocked both teams and everyone in the bleachers by bisecting the plate and popping into the catcher’s mitt. The umpire was so dumbfounded that he called it a ball, before correcting himself, and Lin could almost see his brain telling him to actually watch the pitches now, which up to this point hadn’t been necessary. The next pitch was in the exact same spot, and the batter, now with two strikes, stepped out of the box and stared at his coach, who almost imperceptibly shook his head. When the umpire called strike three in an amazed tone of voice, the batter threw his bat in disgust, and to make matters worse, the runner on third, thoroughly disoriented, came trotting home as if the batter had been walked and then was easily tagged out. This rendered the Stop & Shop coach apoplectic, perhaps because he’d just stood there watching and never shouted for the kid to get back to the bag. Just that quickly there were two outs, and Elm Photo’s infield was suddenly full of chatter. “Way to throw strikes, Hugo! One more now! Just like that!”

  When he realized that he was the only one on the team not offering encouragement, even Lin joined in, though he was deeply ambivalent about Hugo’s sudden, inexplicable discovery of the strike zone. Of course he hoped Elm Photo would win this last game, but would have been just as content if Hugo came in and lost it singlehandedly. At least in this scenario, Lin himself couldn’t lose the game for his team, which was his greatest fear. Whereas now, if a ball was hit in his direction and he failed to catch it, the winning run might score on his error. No one would remember the five batters Hugo had walked, only that Lin Hart had let an easy out skitter between his legs. Worse, it would end the season, giving him no chance of redeeming himself. That the team should rally so excitedly around Hugo Wentz seemed monstrously unfair.

  Yet when he heard Hugo Wentz say “I hate him!” Lin felt a sudden kinship he wanted desperately to deny. Though he didn’t hate his father—or anybody, really—the other boy’s enmity registered powerfully, like something rancid on the back of his tongue. Because there were things, Lin realized, that he hated, hated so deeply, in fact, that he’d never found the courage to utter them even to himself. Despite never having seen it, he hated his father’s apartment over the barbershop. He hated the fact that adults couldn’t agree on how to do simple things, like keeping the windows open on hot days. He hated his mother playing Jo Stafford over and over, and that dreamy, faraway look in her eye that suggested she’d like nothing better than to follow the wayward wind and leave her whole life, including him, behind. Lately, now that he thought about it, he hated almost everything, even things he’d loved the most, one of which was baseball.

  Tasting all this on the back of his tongue, he also realized that he was jealous—could such a thing be possible?—of the pathetic Hugo Wentz, not just because he’d struck a batter out, but because he’d somehow found the courage to acknowledge and express his hatred, and as a direct result had a completely different look about him. Not confidence, exactly. No, he just looked like a boy who’d finally had enough, who preferred to face the firing squad now rather than later. That the batter who now stepped up to the plate was the best hitter on the Stop & Shop team, that he’d already hit two home runs, didn’t even seem to occur to him.

  It occurred to Lin, though, because the boy was left-handed, and when he took a slow practice swing, the end of his bat was pointing right at Lin, as if to predict where hell would break loose. As Hugo started his windup, things went into slow motion and Lin Hart found he had the leisure to think a great many thoughts. For instance, that the game didn’t really matter so much, because everything was changing. A year from now his father might be living someplace else. Hadn’t he said from the start that the apartment over the barbershop wasn’t forever? No, he’d insisted it was just until Lin’s mother made up her mind. New York City, he’d hinted more than once, would be a much better place for a bartender. Or maybe his mother would announce tomorrow that they were moving to Connecticut to be closer to Grandma and Grandpa Foster. Maybe that’s why the house was being painted, so it could be sold for a better price. Maybe in another month he’d be in a new school in Connecticut where they had lots of pretty girls even prettier than his cousin, whose hair he could still feel brushing his cheek and whose smell he’d breathed deep within his lungs. He remembered the satisfaction of guessing right about Audrey’s bullying, the pleasure of seeing his bold challenge work according to plan. That’s what he was going to be good at, it now dawned on him. He’d be good with girls. His father was. That’s why people called him Slick, and slick was a good thing to be.

  Lin had other thoughts, too, and his reverie might have produced a
great many other understandings had his thoughts not been interrupted by the sharp crack of a bat.

  CENTER

  A strange car was parked right in front of the house when Lin returned home that evening, a Dodge that looked brand new. Leaning his bike up against the porch railing, he went over and peered inside, looking for clues, but the interior was clean, with nothing on the seats or the floor except a paper mat on the driver’s side.

  In the house he found his father, wearing a sport coat and sitting in the chair he’d used back when this was his house too. His mother, all dressed up, lounged on the near end of the sofa, and both held short highball glasses half full of murky liquid. His father’s busted lip was swollen, but otherwise he looked perfectly natural, and they were both smiling at him so smugly that Lin was forced to consider the possibility that one of the improbable scenarios required to bring this domestic scene to fruition had actually occurred: either his father had grown up, or his mother had kissed his ass.

  His father spoke first. “Who won?”

  “How come you’re here?” Lin said.

  “I live here.”

  Lin looked at his mother, who nodded, with a crooked smile that for an instant made her look like his Connecticut grandmother.

  “Whose car is that outside?” he said.

  “Ours,” his father smiled.

  “How about that?” his mother said. “We’re no longer a foot.”

  And just that quickly, a flash of understanding. “Afoot” was one word, not two. “On foot,” it meant.

  “Anything else you want to know?” his father said.

  There was. The baseball game had run long, making him late for dinner, but there were no food smells. “What about dinner?”

  “We’re going out to eat,” his mother said.

  “To Rigazzi’s?”

  “If you like. Why don’t you go get cleaned up and put on some nice clothes?”

  “I don’t get it,” he finally admitted, which struck both of them as about the funniest thing they’d ever heard.

  Ten minutes later, they’d climbed into the new Dodge and were just about to pull away when Mr. Christie’s pickup rumbled up behind them. Lin’s father looked pleased by this turn of events and, ignoring his wife’s whispered plea to drive off, immediately turned off the ignition and got out. Lin got out too, leaving his mother the only one in the car. The two men shook hands, Mr. Christie beaming his usual good cheer, Lin’s father wearing a knowing grin.

  “I guess you’re about done here,” he said.

  “Just stopped by to pick up my ladder and brushes,” Mr. Christie said.

  “Good,” his father said. “Then you’ll be gone when we get back.”

  This remark appeared to sadden Mr. Christie more than anger him. Turning to Lin, he said, “Linwood tell you he saved the game?”

  “Lin, you mean?” his father said. “My son?”

  Whatever he was driving at, Mr. Christie didn’t seem all that interested. “You should’ve been there,” he smiled, and Lin found himself smiling back. Given how things had worked out, they were friends again.

  “I will be, from now on.”

  “Well, that’s good,” Mr. Christie said, sounding like he meant it. “Today was just the beginning, right, Linwood? Wait’ll next year. All he needs is to grow a little, and then he’ll be a natural shortstop.”

  Lying in bed that night, Lin replayed what had happened that afternoon over and over, trying to decide if he really had saved the game. It was thrilling to think so, and to know this was the conclusion that everybody else had come to, even if he himself wasn’t so sure. The truth, insofar as he was able to reconstruct it, was that he’d been daydreaming when the big Stop & Shop kid uncoiled at Hugo Wentz’s pitch, and what followed wasn’t at all like his nightly fantasies of snagging line drives. For one thing, he didn’t have to dive, because the ball had headed straight for him—was on him, in fact, before he even had time to consider ducking. Rather, his glove had somehow been there in front of his face, and the ball had rocketed into the stiff webbing, closing the mitt around it without Lin even having to squeeze, and then yanking it clean off his wrist. Glove and ball together had described a graceful arc in the air above his head before landing in the dirt behind second base.

  Recalling the moment, Lin realized he’d been in no great hurry to retrieve the glove. The batter, he’d concluded, was out, by virtue of the fact that the ball was still right there in his glove. That the glove was no longer on his hand didn’t seem all that significant, so he was confused by all the yells coming from both teams, as if everybody had forgotten that this was the third out or else couldn’t quite believe that Lin Hart, who always flinched away from slow dribblers, had managed to catch a baseball hit this hard. To prove they were wrong, he picked up the glove, turned toward the umpire to show him that the ball was still in the glove, and, in so doing, collided with the runner who’d been on first and was now bearing down on second. The collision knocked both boys down, but Lin was holding on to the glove with both hands and didn’t drop it, which meant that the runner had been tagged out. Naturally, the other boy protested, complaining that Lin hadn’t even meant to tag him, but the umpire was having none of it. “You don’t have to mean anything,” he explained. “This is baseball. You just have to do it.” Lin repeated this last part in the dark, satisfied, more or less, to have done it.

  His parents’ voices were coming up through the heat register now, in the early stages of an argument, unless Lin was mistaken. His mother was saying that of course they were obligated to pay Mr. Christie, whereas his father was of the opinion that it would serve him right if he got stiffed. As they moved through the rooms below, the conversation went from inaudible to audible to inaudible again.

  Earlier in the summer, Lin would’ve concluded that he was hearing all the important parts, that nothing essential to his understanding or well-being would be said if his ear wasn’t receiving and processing the information. Now it seemed just as likely that the really important things— like his parents’ decision to live together again, like his father quitting bartending and selling cars for Uncle Brian, like his mother’s refusal to do as his grandfather, Linwood the Third, had asked—would play out quite naturally in scenes that did not require his presence. Coming home from the restaurant, they’d parked in front of the barbershop and climbed the dark, evil-smelling stairs up to the dingy flat to gather the last of his father’s things. It was an awful place, but Lin understood it was as perfectly real as every place else in the world, which was large beyond imagining, containing every single place he himself had ever been or never would see in his entire life. Earlier, when he’d been sent upstairs to clean up and change clothes, he’d passed by his mother’s room and seen through the open door the unmade bed—his parents’ bed again, not just his mother’s—and intuited in the tangle of sheets at least part of what made the world go round. And he knew that when Sunday came and the three of them were at church, for the first time since last autumn, it would be a different usher who leaned the wicker offering basket down their pew, and that it wouldn’t linger there before them like some hard-to-ask question.

  It was into this entirely different world that Linwood Hart now fell asleep, sadly grateful that he was not and never had been, nor ever would be, its center.

  RICHARD RUSSO

  The Whore’s Child

  Richard Russo lives in coastal Maine with his wife and their two daughters. He has also written five novels: Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls.

  ALSO BY RICHARD RUSSO

  BRIDGE OF SIGHS

  Louis Charles Lynch (known as Lucy) is sixty years old and has lived in Thomaston, New York, his entire life. Lucy’s oldest friend, once a rival for his wife’s affection, leads a life in Venice far from Thomaston. Lucy writes the story of his town, his family, and his own life, interspersed with that of the native son who left so long ago and never looked back.

  Fiction/Lit
erature

  MOHAWK

  Mohawk, New York, is one of those small towns that lie almost entirely on the wrong side of the tracks. Dallas Younger, a star athlete in high school, now drifts from tavern to poker game, while his ex-wife, Anne, is stuck in a losing battle with her moth-er over the care of her sick father. Richard Russo explores these lives with profound compassion and flint-hard wit.

  Fiction/Literature

  NOBODY’S FOOL

  Nobody’s Fool follows the unexpected operation of grace in the life of an unlucky man, Sully, who has been triumphantly doing the wrong thing for fifty years. Divorced and carrying on with another man’s wife, saddled with a bum knee and friends who make enemies redundant, Sully now has a new problem: a son who is in danger of following in his father’s footsteps. With humor and a heart that embraces humanity’s follies, this is storytelling at its most generous.

  Fiction/Literature

  THE RISK POOL

  Ned Hall is doing his best to grow up, even though neither of his estranged parents can properly be called adult. His father, Sam, cultivates bad habits so assiduously that he is stuck at the bottom of his auto insurance risk pool. His mother, Jenny, is slowly going crazy from resentment at a husband who refuses either to stay or to stay away. As Ned veers between allegiances to these grossly inadequate role models, Russo gives us a book that overflows with outsized characters and outlandish predicaments.

 
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